Celebrating East African Writing!

A Pair of Orbs

His right hand hangs limp between his legs. By its side is his left, holding two polished orbs the size of pool-game balls; one black, the other red. He turns these in his hand over and over.

He sits crushed between two fat women, none visibly sick. They look quite healthy to him if anything. The one on the right looks toward the empty reception desk. He looks from her face to her hands. They lay on her thigh, the fingers interlaced like lovers’. They are still, loving each other like that, although some finger twitches involuntarily.

The woman on his left looks at his hand playing the orbs. Her eyes slide slowly up his arm, tracking the tattoo, the tail of a dragon that disappears up the folded sleeve of his blue-checkered shirt, its flame-spitting head tucked somewhere in his armpit. Finally she looks up, her cold eyes, stuck deep in her fat face, digging into his. He smiles. She looks away.

He turns his eyes back to the orbs, the cracked smile waning. He sees his face, his head actually, on both orbs- red and black oblongs of his head, the edges hazy as they curve with the sphere’s circumference- toward the floor.

Meanwhile, his head is busy cooking various explanations for the woman’s sad, if not rude, indifference. Then he suddenly feels sorry for her and decides that he owes her an explanation. He turns to her and says, “I do that when I‘m nervous”, referring to his hand and the orbs. But she’s already gone. Her eyes, protruding sharply under clean-shaved eyebrows, roll every which way, not looking really- just searching. At the moment, her eyes absently follow the receptionist now standing by her desk.

The receptionist is doing nothing really, just popping her chewing gum and twisting a strand of her blond wig around her middle finger, then tucks in an imagination of a stray strand behind her left ear. Now she sits, reaches somewhere behind the desk and brings up an aged file, which comes apart. She arranges the disarrayed papers impatiently, then she wets her thumb on her tongue and turns the pages furiously.

The reception area is busy in subtle ways: different kinds of shoes; different scents; different cadences and pitches of whispers; clothes of various shades, some sucking away the light there, some trying to add to it but the effort limited by some prevailing cloudy mood.

The sick step by cautiously, their faces frowned with their various pains. Nurses in their white uniforms slide by gracefully like angels, their flat-soled white sneakers muffled against the floor.

This is his view of the place. He loathes hospitals. The stench of medicine and sickness; all that methylated spirit and hydrogen peroxide and cute tablets and capsules whose names he doesn’t know; the scalpels and needles.

He finds hospitals places of subtle but searing ironies and metaphors like a big city. There is so much to witness, but it’s always too much to take in all at once. Everything, minute as they may be, comes at you fast and you have to move on to the next one before you make proper sense of any of it.

Then, you’re probably seeing it all wrong. The blocky building has nothing to do with clear-cut ends and edges. And the sick lay there still, but underneath, the things that have gone wrong work hard at getting right or getting worse, churning busily like a chewing jaw.

And some lazy nurse has nothing better to do but keep her eye on the visit-clock and she’ll send you out right on the hour, the very minute, with nothing but a piercing glare or a slashing word or both.

The phone on the receptionist’s desk rings. She picks it up and says, “Eeh!” Her eyes, distant and cold like a reptile’s, browse the waiting bench as she listens to the voice on the other side. She puts the receiver down and, still looking at them, says, “You can see your people now”.

He doesn’t know where to go. He hasn’t been here once, all the five weeks his mother has been sick. In fact, he had no plans to. But his sister, who has been with their mother all that time, returned home yesterday and said, “I need a break and she’s your mother. I just need a damn break.”

The lady with shaved eyebrows leads the way. She walks to the door on the left. He waits for the other lady to follow, then he follows behind them.

The moment he steps into the corridor, he encounters a scent he can’t define; more like one big mixture of them. It doesn’t surprise him, expected it in fact, but it disgusts him still. It doesn’t leave him; it trails him or maybe the other way around- he can’t say.

Doors line the walls facing each other across the long tunnel of a corridor. Every now and then one opens and someone goes in or comes out. When that happens he picks up sounds from the rooms, a tinkle, someone whimpering or giggling, pages turning.

They reach the door at the end of the corridor. The lady knocks. No one responds. He’s nervous; his fingers work the orbs furiously. The lady starts to push, but a nurse opens from the inside and walks out. The lady in front steps back and bumps into the lady behind her, who also bumps into him. No apologies. Not that he cares.

When the lady pushes through the door slowly shutting behind the nurse and the other lady follows, he hesitates. Still, he catches up with the door just before it bangs shut on his face.

It’s a big hall. A thin aisle separates the men on one side from the women on the other. Three by six metallic beds are squeezed close to use up space. Two patients share one; they sleep facing opposite directions. The beds also serve as seats for the nurses and the visiting.

The ladies have left the aisle to whoevers they came to see. He tells a nurse, “I’m looking for someone”.

Now he stands over his mother’s bed looking- just looking. And she lays there dead to him. The skin of her face pale like a thin sheet of clay, now dry and could crack any second; her forehead prominent like a helmet.

There’s a metallic bowl by her bed, filled with a bloody mess of someone’s insides. Whose, he wonders. But he quickly kills that question because if he persists, he realizes, he must accept that they could be his mother’s and that’s something he won’t do just yet. He stares at that bowl long and marvels at the ability of death to take up a body and impose itself completely.

Now his eyes stray between spaces. He thinks: When you get down to it this is it. We are nothing but volumes of filthy juices and a mass of meats- meats of different shapes and textures suited for their various functions for the living because once we’re dead it doesn’t matter. It’s okay when it’s still just a name- kidney, liver, intestines. Cells, or cytoplasm, plastid, lysosome, centrioles- sweet words you could name a child after. But wait until it’s diseased and it turns inside out, exposed on a clean surface like the steel hospital bowl washed and sterilized regularly for the sake of getting dirtied again. You want to close your eyes and clog your nose. But you don’t and maybe smile, being polite to the sick and the dying in a way that they themselves can’t or just won’t.

They don’t all look deathly to him though; some look pretty okay. But this hospital has a reputation for unexpected deaths.

There’s a door at the end of the aisle, its paint peeling in scattered scales. It opens into the branchless corridor that leads to the mortuary. It’s slightly ajar and swings smoothly on its oiled hinges.

It suddenly bangs hard against its frame and startles him that the orbs escape from his fingers. They land onto the floor, two quick and sharp sounds, piercing like glass breaking in the middle of the night. Everyone stirs.

He gets to his knees quickly. The orbs roll away, going different directions. He looks at one, then the other and he can’t decide which one to go after first.

The orbs keep rolling and heads turn, listening. They bend down and rise again, eyes searching in various directions across the room, meeting and noticing other eyes for the first time.

Someone kicks the red orb and almost on cue another kicks the black one. The room explodes, people laughing with all the laughter that’s been chained inside their chests all this time. It’s silly really. But perhaps that’s the fun in it. So they laugh and laugh and laugh some more like mad, following with their eyes the orbs beating walls, beating bed-stands, shoes abandoned long, containers carrying sickness and death and all that’s in their way.

When the door bangs again, the room still roars and no one notices.

Still on his knees, a hand grabs him by the shoulder. Feels like claws really, but he knows that hold, the familiarity of his mother’s forcefulness. Now listening to the roaring room, that bad smell forgotten, a smile starts at the corners of his mouth because he thought he heard the sound of spanking followed by the wail of a newborn.

Unexpected grief can be amusing. He thinks.

© David Ooko 2014


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