Celebrating East African Writing!
Ma’s shadow pranced about the dyed brick wall. It brought a stick to its lips. The stick’s end crumbled, and the ghosts in it smouldered, crawling up the wall, up, up, creeping into the ant houses and termite houses and bat houses. The ants and termites and bats would be haunted tonight, unless the rain gods sent down holy water to vanquish the tobacco ghosts.
Stump, stump, Ma’s shadow crushed the stick against the table. Die, stick, die. The stick turned suicidal. It hurled itself off of the table, spun in the air, cracked its ashen skull on the floor.
Ma’s lips shook, dismayed at the stick’s untimely demise. Her lips were two thin hems of flesh, stitched together by a string of pearls. The stitches held her words together; she always spoke through her teeth.
Ma brought her hand up, patted her lips with her fingers. I knew that inside her head, she told the lips things like, “Hush now, Lips, Stick will be back for you” and, “Stick is only doing this for you, Lips. It is only off to find a better life for you”.
Under the mango tree in Nashikawa’s yard, Ma had whispered the same words to me when she was leaving for Germany.
“Hush now, Marvel, Ma will be back for you,” Ma had said. “I’m only doing this for you. I’m off to find a better life for you. When the god of sweltering mangoes makes the mangoes swelter, I’ll be back. We shall eat the sweltering mangoes together, you and I.”
The shadow of Ma’s head shimmered on the brick wall, as though Ma shook her head, disapproving of my thoughts. Ma’s braids fell apart, caressing her temples, nuzzling the bare skin of her breasts. Ma’s breasts weren’t like Nashikawa’s scrubbed, rinsed, drip dried and ironed flat breasts. Her breasts were like overripe pawpaws wedged into her ribs. They were malleable breasts; they would become hand-shaped breasts if touched, mattress-shaped breasts if pressed to a bed during sleep, baby-shaped breasts if suckled.
Ma turned away, showing her back to me. She wiggled into a knee length backless dress. The dress was the colour of millet gruel, with flower prints the shade of hibiscus juice.
“You’re going in that?” I asked.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“People will talk.”
“What are mouths for, if not to talk?”
She strapped on pumps. Kong, kong, kong, she went, here, there. She slipped her passport in a slit on the mattress belly. She made her breasts money-shaped breasts by rolling two hundred Euros inside her dress. She mixed Milasan Fenchel Tee according to the label, with a hundred millilitres Trinkwasser.
Milasan Fenchel Tee was Baby’s special tea. If Baby drunk our Ketepa Tea, his tongue would wither and he would choke and his stomach would tie in knots and his Vater- Ma’s husband- would sue the government for food poisoning.
“Wait in the sitting room while I feed Baby,” Ma said to me.
The Ajanta clock on the wall ticked once for every ten seconds that passed. Around its pasty face were calendars from Easy Coach and Nabongo Mumias Chemist and The Ultimate Bedrest Inn and Holy Prayers Bible Shop. Next to the door were two framed pictures of the same la-di-dah house. Each picture had a different message. The first picture said, “The most basic lesson of economics is that bills always come due.” The second picture said, “Where there is much light, shade is deepest.”
I wondered if the picture makers had really intended for both pictures to be hung side by side, on the same wall like that. Perhaps one picture, the one about economics, was meant for Small House. Small Mother always squandered money. Perhaps the other picture, the one about much light, was meant for Baby. He had skin the colour of a sweltering mango.
“Marvel, let’s go,” Ma said, emerging from the bedroom.
I climbed first, right behind the boda boda man. Baby sat behind me, and then Ma. The boda boda man stepped on the pedal, and off the boda boda went. I wondered, as we sped past Namulungu and Shibale and Matungu and Mayoni, if Ma remembered any of those places. She had been in Berlin so long.
“Ma, look,” I pointed. “That is Nabongo Cultural Centre. White people like to visit it.”
“I’m not white, Marvel,” Ma said.
“Maybe Baby will like to visit it, then,” I said.
Ma said nothing. If I turned, I’d see that the string of pearls in her mouth had sewed her lips together into a tight wordless seam.
“Oh, look, Ma, a white person,” I said, pointing at the roadside. “Is that Baby’s Vater?”
Ma smacked my cheek. The shock of it almost threw me off the boda boda. I had forgotten about the nimble gymnastics of Ma’s fingers, the electricity stored in her palms.
Ma asked the boda boda man to park in front of Co-op Bank.
“I need to get a thousand Euros from Baby’s Vater,” Ma said to me, as though I’d asked. “The money will buy Nashikawa’s coffin, pay the mortuary fee, buy five cows to feed the guests, get us tickets back to Berlin.”
I wondered what Ma would say to me this time when she left me for Germany.
Would she say, “Marvel, stop sulking, you look like a shimwero”?
If she said that, I would reply, “No, Ma, I don’t look like an earthen pot. Maybe you do.”
And Ma would jolt my face with more electricity. I would cry. My tears would have the excuse of a slap. Ma wouldn’t know that I cried because she was leaving.
Or maybe, when she was leaving, she would say, “Marvel, you have to stay behind and become the next Nashikawa. You have to dye your hair white and gnarl your bones and walk with a knobbly stick. You have to scrub and rinse and drip dry and iron flat your breasts.”
I watched Ma disappear inside the banking hall with Baby. Sitting on the bank veranda, I planted my feet in the blushing bougainvillea. The ants in them thought my legs were part of the bougainvillea. They leaped from the petals to my skin. Where the sun shone through clumps of ant, they looked like coffee smudges on my skin.
“You can’t sit here,” the askari from Co-op Bank said, waving his baton before my face. “No idlers or mulattos allowed.”
As I wandered off, I wondered what the big ‘M’ word the askari had used meant. Did it mean Child That Charmed Ants? Fat-Cheeked Sulker? Child That Jumped Off Boda Boda Before Boda Boda Stopped?
I drifted off to the next building, the building that called itself Wanga Castle 1989. A man led a woman inside Wanga Palace Guest House. He stared intently at her in the eye, which was a curious thing to watch as his eyes were the size of green grams; all pupil and no eyeball.
Nearby, a woman passed. Her basket held three dried mbuta fish and three torn pairs of rubber clogs. A girl my age hawked Kofa geometrical sets and boiled eggs. A man pulled his donkey, his donkey pulled his cart. The cart held sweltering mangoes, mangoes whose skin blistered in the sun.
Ma and Baby came out of the bank, and we went to the coffin shop. A sticker on the coffin shop window said, “Don’t sleep on the job. Sleep is the cousin of death.”
Ma explained to the coffin man which coffin she wanted. The coffin man asked questions and Ma answered.
“The Dead was tall up to here,” Ma said, touching a chink in the wall just above her neck. “She was fat from here to where that table ends.”
“ She had a fat laugh too, maybe you should make room for it,” I said.
The coffin man chuckled. Ma said there was no time to fool around, we had to hurry hurry, time was bad. The coffin man chewed on a pineapple while he listened to Ma. He spat out the pulp as though the pineapple wasn’t really pineapple flavoured pineapple but sugarcane flavoured.
The coffin man offered a hearse-rental service. One of his hearses drove Ma, Baby and me up to St. Mary’s Mumias Mission Hospital Mortuary. The hearse driver joined the mortuary attendants inside, while Ma, Baby and I waited on the stone slabs, by the lavatories.
The mortuary was a small grey high-walled structure, like a prison for lost souls. Its walls were set in rough cast. Its smoother wall sections had paintings of The Virgin in various poses of holiness. The artistry was poor; in all the paintings, The Virgin had one eye larger than the other, higher up her face. In one painting The Virgin had a masculine face, as though the painter had originally painted Jesus, and then shrouded him with a veil. In another painting, The Virgin had the body of a fat person and the face of an emaciated holy fairy.
“They don’t die, but sleep in The Lord,” read an inscription on the door.
“What do you suppose Nashikawa is dreaming in her sleep?” I asked Ma.
“Of her best Sunday dress, the one you scorched with coal from the iron box,” Ma said.
“Or maybe she is dreaming of the gate. She stared at it each morning for years, hoping to see you walk through it,” I said.
“How would you know she stared at it each morning for years, hoping to see me walk through it?” Ma asked.
“She told me, ‘How I’ve stared at that gate for years, hoping to your mother walk through it. But I know your mother. She will only come back after I die, to bury me.’”
Ma turned to Baby. She smoothened the blond curls on his head, twiddled with the pacifier in his mouth. Baby tossed the pacifier at Ma’s shadow. Ma gave it back. Baby tossed it. Ma gave it. Toss. Give.
The mortuary people came back with the coffin and put it inside the hearse. The hearse driver was careless. In the journey back home, he scraped sides with sugar cane tractors and petroleum tankers and boda boda men.
Every time we flew by a pothole, I shuddered at the thought of rousing Nashikawa from her Dead Asleep sleep. As we sped down the road, the can fields spun like the blades of a fan. The sight made me think of an expression I’d had Ma use when she arrived from Germany. Shit hits the fan.
When we got home, we found the boma teeming with mourners. As soon as they saw the hearse, they fell to their backs in grief and flailed their arms and legs like cockroaches.
“Oh, Nashikawa, Nashikawa, why didn’t you take us with you?” they said, their words immersed in the tears that floated in their throats.
Baby’s screams joined the melee. I slapped his wrist. Baby had never known Nashikawa, why was he pretending to mourn? Baby didn’t have to be like the cockroach people rolling on the ground; he didn’t have to feign grief so as to eat the five cows that would be slaughtered below the mango tree. Baby would still get his Milasan Fenchel Tee whether or not he cried like the cockroach people.
The cockroach people wanted a ceremony that would drag on and on for days. The more Nashikawa’s burial dragged, the more cows they would eat. But Ma said we had to hurry hurry, time was bad. She had to leave for Germany the next day.
“Don’t spit in your mother’s face,” the cockroach people told Ma. “You think your Big Money can buy her Big Space in Heaven? You think your White Children can give her White Resting Place?”
Even the bishop of Nashikawa’s Dini Ya Misambwa said he would only come to bury Nashikawa on Saturday, five days later. Nashikawa had to sleep in her house for the prerequisite number of days. People shouldn’t just mourn; they had to mourn and mourn.
“Screw them and their rituals,” Ma said. “Nashikawa wasn’t their mother. And I don’t have time for their silly burial rites.”
Ma paid an undertaker. The people watched in horror as Undertaker, Ma, Baby and I buried Nashikawa by ourselves. We lowered her in a hole north of her house, near the tree that produced sweltering mangoes.
The cockroach people talked.
“You killed your own mother,” they said. “That’s why you buried her hurry hurry.”
Others said, “May your mother’s spirit strangle you in the night.”
The bishop sent word. He said, “We shall exhume the body and give it a proper burial. Tell that daughter of The Dead to leave behind some wads in an envelope marked ‘The Bishop’.”
While the cockroach people ate their cow and hurled evil eyes our way, Ma, Baby and I went back to the brick house. Ma needed to pack, to leave me.
The front of my shirt was wet. I couldn’t tell which of those tears were for Nashikawa and which were for Ma leaving me.
“Oh for god sakes,” Ma said, putting Baby on the mattress. She went outside for a smoke. When she came back, she collapsed into the mattress, next to Baby. Her grief-shaped breasts shone with the tears that fell from the pink corners of her eyes.
“I didn’t know big people cried, Ma,” I said.
Ma gave a pitiful chuckle, a half amused half disgusted snort. “What are tears for, if not to shed?”
Baby waved his arms at me. I looked at him for a few moments, puzzled.
“He wants you,” Ma said.
I climbed the bed, let Baby wrap his arms around my neck. He smelt of Johnson and Johnson and wet earth. His curls tickled my skin. Baby squealed in my arms.
“How does it feel like to be white, Ma?” I asked, stroking Baby’s sweltering-mango skin, thinking of the picture of the la-di-dah house that said where there is much light, shade is deepest.
Ma stood up. She rummaged in her suitcase, took out a leather wallet. Inside the wallet were little transparent pages in which Ma had placed photographs of white people. Baby was the only person I recognised.
“Do you know her?” Ma asked, running her finger over the length of a photograph.
“No,” I said.
I studied the girl in the photograph. Her hair was tied in pigtails down the sides of her face. She had sweltering-mango skin, like Baby. Her eyes were large, like avocados on her face. They were sand coloured eyes, eyes that swallowed the things they saw until there was nothing left to see.
“Is that Baby’s sister?” I asked.
“What’s her name?”
Ma laughed. “Why, that’s you, silly!”
“Me?” I asked, looking at the girl’s sweltering-mango skin. “I don’t look like that, Ma.”
Maybe Nashikawa’s death had affected Ma more than I’d imagined. She was now incoherent.
Baby was asleep in my arms. I placed him next to Ma on the mattress. I lay next to him, pulled the covers up. I needed to sleep. Maybe Ma and Baby would slip away to Germany then. It would be hush hush, no need for tears, no need for explanations.
When I woke up, I would dye my hair white and scrub and rinse and drip dry and iron flat my breasts. I would become the next Nashikawa. I would spend the years alone in the boma, eating cassava three times a day, guessing which part of my body would sprout mould next. I would spend the years staring at the gate, hoping to see Ma walk through it again, yet knowing she would only come back when I was dead, to bury me.