Celebrating East African Writing!

The Old Heart

Written by Peter Ngumba

Grandpa’s knee was making a terrible racket. Mom flinches when she hears it whining and buries her head in her hands; dad peeks out from behind the newspaper and smiles when he sees the old man hobbling down the stairs.

“I thought the cat was dying,” he says, before returning to the business section.

“When are you getting that fixed?” mom asks.

“I’ll do it this afternoon,” grandpa says. He sits down beside me and roughs up my hair. “Will you help?”

“Sure,” I say.

Helping grandpa out is always fun.


Grandpa keeps his old heart in a jar of formaldehyde in his workshop. It floats there, a sickly grey. I sneak down whenever I can to study it, and each time I wonder why it failed; it had almost killed my grandfather.

Mother sometimes catches me staring. She does not approve of its presence and of my profound interest in it.

“I don’t know why I let him keep it in the house,” she says. “It’s disgusting.”

Yet she never mentions it at the table.

Grandpa tells me he now has a heart of complex polymers and plastics, and that his heartbeat is regulated by a computer.

“My heart does a better job than yours, and that’s a guarantee,” he extols. “I can eat all the red meat I want now.”

“Can you love with it, though?” I ask him.

“The heart has nothing to do with love,” he responds. “Love is all about the soul, my boy.”

His creaking leg needs special attention, not just lubricant like I had thought. The damage is extreme, like it was mangled by a sentient car.

“How did this happen?” I ask him.

“Don’t you worry about it,” he says with a big old smile. “Pass me the hammer.”

We beat the leg within an inch of its life, and in the end it has more dents than it started with. When he walks it doesn’t sound like a dying cat anymore: it sounds like a sad whining dog.

At dinner, grandpa leans over to mother and says, “I’m going to need a new leg.”

Mother patiently puts down her chicken leg. “Another one? We only just got this one.”

“It can’t be helped. Look at it.” He dislodges the leg form his thigh and brandishes it over the table. “I can’t very well walk with this, can I?”

“Fine!” Mother says. “We’ll replace it tomorrow.”

“It’s not like I wanted one,” grandpa grumbles. When no one else is looking, he gives me a wink.

The next day I find grandpa on his new leg, carrying a box of empty glass jars into his workshop. He lines them up next to the old heart, and for a moment I worry that that heart might, in retrospect, not have failed him at all. He notices my worried expression.

“Don’t worry,” he says, his eyes flashing. “I’m not going anywhere. Your grandpa is going to live forever.”

– Peter Ngumba


3 comments on “The Old Heart

  1. Carol
    May 27, 2015

    Yet another piece that leaves me wanting some more…. awesome!!!


  2. Jerà
    June 4, 2015

    Lovely story Peter Ngumba.

    Just one question, is roughing up the hair relevant to African culture?

    Otherwise, I enjoyed it.

    My pen is capped



  3. Muxxi
    January 28, 2017

    Serendipity brought me here.

    This is a good story, Peter Ngumba. The kind that lurks in one’s mind for days on end, sometimes surfacing inappropriately when one is bored in a child’s birthday party.


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