What could spoil a day like this? The sun is out after a week’s worth of cold and rain; the girl is in her open sandals, elastic straps tying her just pedicured feet to soft soles. She feels every part of her. The sensual rub of her satin blouse against her nipples. The sun on her skin with the same warmth her mother brought, stroking her arm absentmindedly as she gossiped with one or the other auntie on mango-stained Sunday afternoons. The girl inhales. She exhales. Her hair is freshly done, every strand caught and pulled into synthetic box braids that sit on her head weightily and pleasantly, like something earned. Her cotton skirt plays between her legs, licking her ankles intermittently. She feels the articulation of her legs at the joint, the rhythm of it. The swing of the purse in her hand, the faux leather of its strap grainy. Her nails are a shade of blue that is the sky.
The cabro blocks of the broad street slowly file past under her feet, some a faded pink, others a too rich navy blue, others dozing grayly. Even the sound of honking cars is muted today. Her thoughts are butterflies, alighting momentarily to extend their tubes and investigate the core meaning of life, then lifting off and giving themselves over to the wind. She is made up of many good bits today: yesterday’s dreamless sleep under 500 mg of magnesium; the email invite this morning from her friend—a wedding in November at a Swahili-inspired hotel, all white and blue and curtains simmering against an aquamarine sea; a compliment about her outfit from a girl as they crossed lives momentarily on Kenyatta Avenue; the book in her kindle app about a magical girl that she intends to escape into as soon as her day is done.
She is magnanimous today. Every face she sees impresses itself gently on her heart. For what are we but fragile things trying to live? The man who zooms by on his motorcycle, without a helmet, is trying to take life by its horns. The saleswoman at the door of one of the shops who tries to lure her in epitomizes fortitude in the face of constant rejection. The dirty child in a brown khimar who appears at her side, hand outstretched, and asks for food, is deserving and betrayed. The girl gives the child a fifty shillings note and watches as it runs to its bored mother, who sits nearby on the roots of a denuded, suffering Jacaranda. The girl is without resentment when the woman yanks the money out of the child’s hand and sticks it into her bra. We are all trying to live. We are all insufficiently loved. But, the girl reflects, even those who abandon us, who no longer want us, deposit in us a new favourite song, or a different way of squinting at life’s problems, or a deep sense of ourselves. Purple pieces of Jacaranda rain over the street.
The girl taps her heart—it is well, it is well—and turns to contemplating the burger she will eat in about half an hour: the surrender of the potato bread when she bites, the crunch of lettuce and tomato, the melt of cheddar cheese and caramelized onions, the dripping of the beef patty (medium to well-done) and the sting of the peppery mushroom sauce. She swallows.
And so he arrives without warning. Like a slap on the face. Like the heart when it tips off its solid shelf and drops. There is a distended moment between his grab and the girl realizing that she has lost her purse. She cracks as beautifully as she has held together; her centre is rage and hopelessness. She unwisely gives chase.
No, no, no, not the peach-coloured purse that she espied on a table in Toi market years ago and grabbed just before another woman reached out for it, that she bargained hard for, countering the seller blow by blow, down to four hundred and eighty shillings from one thousand. The purse that her best friend still compliments and covets and would borrow permanently if the girl were not careful to hide it during their sleepovers. The purse whose pockets have begun unravelling. It means something intangible to her, something she will not be able to explain to her angry parents when they find out about her dash after this thief. A purse full of ordinary things: coins, keys, a tube of blackcurrant lip gloss, a forgotten condom still unused from a month ago when she had a lover, a parking card, her five-year-old phone with the long scratch across the screen, her national ID with dog-eared corners, and old chewing gum scrunched up in its wrapper. Her mind swells: mine, mine, mine. She pounds the pavement with her feet, pointing, shouting, but no one tries to stop the thief; no one wants to have a knife in the gut.
A concretion of anger. A condensation of all the things that have scraped her recently: an ugly just-ended entanglement to which she clung and clung until she was ripped off and discarded like a leech—I told you where I was at when we started all this, he’d said; a dead-end job; a sister-in-law who has siphoned all her parents’ luminous approval by earning a master’s degree in Marketing while growing a foetus. And then the other things that anger her in a distracting and grinding way, things she can do nothing about because she is a coward, and she will not get tear-gassed, clobbered, and arrested over an uncertain revolution: the barely-out-of-teenagehood Kianjokoma brothers dead at the hands of the police and no one arrested; the billions the President says are vanishing from the national Treasury every day; DJ Evolve shot and maimed in a club by a sitting MP who is still sitting quite comfortably; the countries far away hoarding vaccines while their citizens brandish guns over masks and personal freedoms.
No! She will not lose one more fucking thing to the world. Not today. She breaks her one rule. She allows the transformation. She becomes long arms and long legs, tentacles where she had breasts a moment ago, large teeth over which her lips will not shut, feet that pulverize cabro blocks, a head full of eyes, glorious wings tear through her muscles and clothes. Mine, she roars.
She spits and splats the man against the pavement. The satisfying knock of his head against the cabro. When he attempts to move, she frays him with rough tentacles. He writhes and screams when she breaks a bone.
Ooi, you will kill him, they say. Onlookers. They do not join her, as she would expect, in meting out punishment, in this city where suspected persons are routinely doused in kerosene and burnt while necklaced in old tyres. Heads are shaking. There are whispers. Her ugliness is an affront, she realizes, and her insides scamper back into hiding. She is again a blue-nailed girl enclosed in a crowd of angry stares. Tongues clicking their disgust. The thief is quivering like a victim despite his robust build. She has left his clothes in shreds.
He took my… she tries to explain.
Anger management, the onlookers shout.
No one hears her. She feels that she has blocked a certain revelation that was coming to all of them just a moment ago.
So what have you achieved now? they ask.
You feminists will eat us up, they say.
She clamps together as she surveys the damage she has caused. The words beat down on her, hailstones tearing through thin skin.
Who are you to take the law into your own hands? they ask.
They lift her victim and support him against righteous bodies. He whimpers and becomes a wronged child.
I, I… she tries to explain.
Someone throws her purse at her and its contents spill. She must go on her knees to gather her life. She is all repentant and near tears. Worse than anything else is that she has exposed herself. She has lost control. She knows she’s been filmed; she is probably already a hideous meme making the rounds on Twitter. She can just imagine the comments. And this will surely reach him, her former lover who she cannot even call an ex, and he will know that he was right in not wanting her. This will reach her parents too; there will be a family meeting and lengthy expressions of disappointment because she is not just herself—she is also of a unit and “we Ongeres do not behave in such an uncouth manner.” And she will shrink and vanish into the folds of her parents’ 1985-tailored sofa.
But when she gets off her knees, she notices those she had not noticed before. The quiet ones standing a little ways off. Monsters like herself, clothed in propriety, watching and waiting. They see her and each other, but the crowd is oblivious to the momentous decision to be made here and now.
The crowd is intoxicated with righteousness. They mutter in drunkenness as something passes from one head to the next, tying them into a hive mind.
We cannot allow it, they say.
She has broken some law of the jungle that is Nairobi. Violence hangs over the city. Violence she started. Her quiet brethren ask with their eyes what she will do, what she will allow. I am a coward, she pleads with them. Perhaps she should start crying to appease the bristling crowd.
We can abide anything, any sin, but not monsters, they say.
They close in. Hands reach out to grab her. She shudders at being touched like a thing and as though she does not belong to herself. Then she remembers that she is indeed a monster, and her brethren smile. The blind crowd does not see her wickedness stirs. They think of her as a girl they can push around, scold, spit on, and discipline. Oh, she will be bad. She will be horrible. When she lets out a giggle, the crowd stills, and confusion appears on their faces.
Haiya, this girl is mad! they say.
But she laughs because she is beyond needing anyone’s forgiveness. She embraces herself as she has never done before. Her brethren revel in her glory. Mine, mine, mine.
The wind picks up and whistles a warning that goes unheard. Someone honks his annoyance from the air-conditioned inside of a Porsche Cayenne; the crowd is obstructing his way. He too will remember this moment and recite it over and over to his boys over whiskey in a Westlands bar, but he still won’t be able to wrap his mind around it.
In one sweep, the wicked girl-monster snatches the thief from the arms that brace him. They watch as she tosses him head-first into her gigantic mouth. Their understanding dissolves as she chews down his screams, cracking every objection with powerful teeth. She savours his desperation. She grinds him to mush. She swallows. Down her gullet he rolls as a bolus then splashes into acid, enzymes, and mucus. For the next few hours, she will digest him out of existence, and this will not save the world, destroy corruption and greed, or end the pandemic. But she will enjoy it.
She burps and zips up her purse and her brethren arise.
There is a feast in the streets of downtown Nairobi. An ugly, sickening feast in the city of the sun. A harvesting of all that makes us allow and allow and allow. It is not a righteous feast. The ogres gorge themselves on flesh and scream and neither the glare of the sun, nor the gods, nor the Ancestors can appease their fury.
About the Author:
Makena was awarded the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize and was a nominee for the 2020 Best of the Net Awards.
Following her Caine Prize win, she founded the Nairobi Writing Academy where she teaches the craft of fiction to new and emerging writers and collaborates with other writers to teach other forms of creative writing.
Feature image by Monsterkoi / Pixabay