Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I Want You Near.

Your presence lingers Hangs about unending. Wispy rings of smoke Floating in my airless room. Your halo ricochets off these walls Bounces around unrelenting.. A squash ball; unforgiving. Weighting heavy on my gloom. I want you near Here Entwined, living out fantasies. Relishing, ravishing. * for B, for hangovers of sex 26 Nov 2015.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Sack. Namwali Serpell

J. washed the plates from lunch. He swept. A chicken outside made a popping sound. J. sucked his teeth and went to see what was wrong. The isabi boy was standing outside the security gate. The boy held the bucket handle with both hands, the insides of his elbows splayed taut. His legs were streaked white and grey. How do you expect me to know you are here if you are quiet? J. asked as he opened the gate. The boy shrugged, a smile dancing upwards and then receding into the settled indifference of his face. J. told the boy to take off his patapatas and reached for the bucket. Groaning with its weight, J. heaved the unwieldy thing into the sink. He could just make out the shape of the bream, fl ush against the inside of the bucket, its fi n protruding. J. felt the water shift as the fi sh turned uneasily. A big one today, eh? J. turned and smiled. The boy still stood by the door, his hands clasped in front of him. His legs were re fl ected in the parquet fl oor, making him seem taller. Do you want something to eat? The boy assented with a diagonal nod. You should eat the fi sh you catch. It is the only way to survive, J. said. I told him about the fi rst dream but I did not tell him about the second. In the second dream, I am inside the sack. The cloth of it is pressing right down on my eyes. I turn one way, then the other. All I can see is grey cloth. There is no pain but I can feel the ground against my bones. I am curled up. I hear the sound of the sack, sweeping like a slow broom. I have been paying him long enough – paying down his debt – that he should treat me like a real bwana . He does his duties, yes. But he lacks deference. His politics would not admit this, but I have known this man since we were children. I know what the colour of my skin means to someone of our generation. His eyes have changed. I think he is going to kill me. I think that is what these dreams are telling me. Naila. I cannot remember your hands. They lifted the bream out of the bucket together, the boy ’ s hands holding the tail, J. ’ s hands gripping the head. The fi sh swung in and out of the curve of its own body, its gills pumping with mechanical panic. They fl ipped it on to the wooden board. Its side was a jerking plane of silver, drops of water magnifying its precise scaling. The chicken outside made a serrated sound. Iwe , hold it down! The boy placed his hands on either end of the body. J. slid a knife beneath the locking, unlocking gills. Blood eased over their hands. The fi sh bucked once, twice. Stopped. I needed your help, J. smiled. He deboned and gutted the fi sh. The boy wiped the chopping board, hypnotised by his own hand tracking thin loops of purple and yellow entrails across it. J. fried the fi sh in cooking oil with salt and onions and tomatoes. He served a piece of it to the boy, setting the plate on the fl oor. He set a portion of the fi sh aside for himself and took a plate with the rest of it to the man in the bedroom. The room was dark but for an orange patch on the wall from the street lamp. Who is here? The isabi boy. J. put the plate on the side table and turned on the lamp. The man began to cough, the phlegm in his chest rattling as he heaved and hacked. J. helped him sit up and rubbed his back until the fi t ceased. When it was done, the man was tired. Why is the fi sh boy still here? Did you not pay him? I gave him supper. As if I have food to spare, the man grunted. He took the plate on to his lap and began eating. In the fi rst dream, the sack is full and it is being dragged. In the second dream, I am inside it. What will the third dream reveal? You laugh. You say that dreams move forwards, not back. That I am imagining things. But that is why you chose me, Naila. Or at least that is what I fancied then. Now I am not so sure. Some days, I think you loved me for my hands. Other days, I think you threw stones to decide. The plate on the kitchen fl oor was empty. The boy was gone. A tongue cleaned that plate, J. thought as he went to the doorway. The security gate was scaly with insects now, some so heavy their bodies chimed against the hollow metal bars. J. opened it and descended the short set of steps outside. He squatted to open the thatched door of the coop. He could hear the creaking, purring sound of the birds. Light from the house slivered the dark. J. inched along, his hipbone clicking as he went from one chicken to the next. They pivoted their heads and puffed their feathers. The last chicken sat upright on its nest but it wasn ’ t moving. J. heard a shudder and scanned the wall. The boy. Crouching in the corner, light-mottled. J. turned back to the chicken and inched closer, reaching for it. The feathers were strung with light brittle spines. The bird fell limp in his hand. Then he saw them, hordes of them, spilling down the chicken ’ s body, rolling around its neck, massing from its beak. J. started back. The chicken caved in as a fl ood of ants washed over it. J. stood, hitting his head on the thatched roof. The chickens were yelping and fl apping, feathers rising from the ground. The ants snipped at his skin. As he hunched his way out of the coop, a chicken beat its way past his ribs and loped across the yard, head at full piston. Methodically, J. brushed his body off. Then he reached back and pulled the shaking child from the shadows. My chest is full of cracked glass. That is how it feels when I cough. But the glass never shatters – there is not even that relief of complete pain. I am sick, Naila. Working for me has only made him stronger. Why does he bother? I thought at fi rst that it was the money. But now I think he has been waiting. I wonder at the dwindling of our cares. We began with the widest compass, a society of the people, we said. But somehow we narrowed until it was just us three. Jacob, Joseph, Naila. You replaced yourself with the baby you birthed. So there were still three. But then your family took our son away. And now there are only two. Every day this sickness bites into my body and soon there will be only one. In the dream that just woke me, I am on the ground. It is night. The man kneels at my side. The face is melted but his hair- line has washed back with a froth of white hair and he has those same strong arms. His hands are wet. He is tugging the mouth of the sack up over my thighs. This must be when he puts my body into it. We are in the garden. I woke to the smell of smoke. J. burned the coop. The four chickens left – one had disappeared in the night, snatched by a lucky dog – huddled in a makeshift corral. The fi re smelled good; the dead chicken was practically fresh-cooked. From the kitchen doorway, J. watched the last of the smoke coiling up to join the clouds above. The sun took its time. His saliva was bitter and when he spat in the sink, he saw that it was grey. The boy was sleeping on a blanket on the kitchen fl oor. J. leaned against the counter, watch- ing the boy ’ s chest catch and release. His skinny legs were clean now, greased with Vaseline. J. had hosed the ants off him and anointed the rash of bites. J. made a cup of tea – Five Roses, milk, no sugar – and balanced it on a tray. The bedroom was ripe with the metallic smell of dried blood. A copper dawn lit the window: Kwacha! Ngwee . . . The man looked up when J. entered the room. What was that fi re? I burned the chicken coop. Why? J. put the tray on the side table and began to leave the room. Do not walk away from me. The man spat. J. wiped the spit from the fl oor with his sleeve. White ants, he said. Bloody superstitions. The man sucked his teeth. Is that bloody fi sh boy still here? I don ’ t like people coming here. They fi nd out who I am and ask for money. He doesn ’ t know who you are. He ’ s too young. This boy has no family, J. said. We could use the help. The man lifted his cup, his hand trembling. He sipped the hot tea and winced with pleasure. The boy goes. I can ’ t afford such things. The light had gone from copper to white gold, the day spending itself freely. J. squatted on the stoop outside, shelling groundnuts to cook a dish of pumpkin leaves. Students in pale blue uniforms fl irted in the dirt road. J. watched them with fond pity as he pressed the knuckle of his thumb to the belly of a shell. He hadn ’ t tasted chibwabwa ne ’ ntwilo in twenty years. Naila ’ s favourite. When he returned to the kitchen, he could hear voices in the living room. J. looked through the gap between the door and the frame. The man was leaning against the far wall, his pyjamas low on his hips. J. ’ s eyes narrowed: the man hadn ’ t left his bed in weeks. He was shouting at the boy, who stood with his back to J. Isa kuno , the man said sternly. Come here! Are you deaf? The boy moved hesitantly over to him and the man ’ s hand fell trembling on to the bony shoulder. He used the boy as a crutch, lever- ing himself to the sofa. His breathing rasped, shaving bits of silence off the air. In the dull light of the living room, the boy ’ s skin was the colour of a tarnished coin. There, the man pointed at a picture frame face down on the fl oor near the sofa. What is that? J. opened the door. Leave him, he said. The boy rushed to J. ’ s side. He broke it, the man snarled, picking up the framed photograph. He doesn ’ t know, J. said, looking down at the boy leaning against his leg. I don ’ t want him here, the man panted. I owe it to him, J. said. The man gaped, a laugh catching in his throat. The only debt you owe is to me, old man. J. pushed the boy ahead of him into the kitchen. I did not think I would walk again. These dreams give me strength. Not enough. I only got halfway to the kitchen, to the knives in the drawer. They wait like a fl at bouquet: their thick wooden stems, their large silver petals. I will gather them up in my tired hands and I will hold them out to you. Naila. Look at you. There is a crack over your face because that bastard boy dropped the picture. But you are lovely in your green salwar kameez . Why do you look down? I never noticed before. Your eyelids are like smooth stones in this picture. I am a fool beside you. We reek of arrogance, all of us, J. with his Nehru shirt. How far he has fallen, sweeping and cooking for me like I ’ m a mu - sungu . This picture must have been taken before the Kalingalinga rally, the one that led to the riot. Do you remember? We were so hopeful. So very young. J. stood above the sleeping man. He watched him for a moment then slapped his hand against the wall to wake him. A gecko in the corner shimmied upwards, its eyes a black colon punched in its face. The man ’ s head fell forwards and he began coughing himself awake. When the phlegm had settled, he blinked. Supper, J. said, placing a hand under the man ’ s armpit to help him up. The man swept his weight against J. like a curtain falling from its rails. J. guided him back towards the bedroom but the man raised his hand. No. I ’ ll eat in there, he nodded his head at the kitchen door. J. shrugged and they proceeded slowly in the other direction. J. kicked the door to the kitchen open and as the isabi boy watched warily, he lowered the man into a chair by a small table. Fish again? the man smiled at the boy. J. placed a plate of food before the man and a bowl for the boy on the fl oor. The man stared at his plate. The fi sh was in pieces, its skin a crimped silver, its eye a button. When J. went to sit on the stoop, the man complained: Join me, he said. My dream in the living room was short. A man is holding an ankle in each hand on either side of his hips. He drags the body towards the empty sack. It leaves a dark irregular trail on the ground. J. was standing over me when I woke up. You would say that these visions are an old man ’ s nonsense. That no man dreams backwards. Can you see us sitting across from each other now? He eats in silence. The boy on the fl oor hums a rally song. J. must have taught him that. They are trying to confuse me. I know this boy is not my son but I have to concentrate to keep it in mind. I insisted on this last supper. I am resigned to it. You laugh: you know I am resigned to nothing. You escaped my wilfulness only by dying. I will see this out. We will wrestle like Jacob and the angel. I do not want the eye, the man said. J. reached for the plate. Am I child that you must cut my food? J. stood and wiped his hand on his trousers. He walked around the boy on the fl oor who was already burrowing into his nsima , humming a song in loops, and opened a drawer and took out a short knife with a wooden handle. Yes, that one, the sharp one, the man said. J. sat back down, watching the man insert the point of the knife into the cavity in the fi sh ’ s head and cut the eye out carefully, tipping it on to the edge of the plate. He put the knife on the table and began to eat in that slow noisy way of his. So, the man said, picking at his teeth with his fi ngernail. J. was at the sink, rinsing pots. What will we do about that broken picture? I can get it fi xed. We are still comrades, that glass cutter and me, J. said. Comrades? Nts. J. leaned against the counter, his arms, damp from dishwater, folded across his chest. What word would you prefer? Friend? What do you know about that word? The man sucked his teeth again. The boy looked up at them, his cheeks dotted with white bits of nsima . Yes, bwana . I know nothing of friendship, J. said. The man looked at him. Rage beat across the air between them. Eating across from each other at a table again had kindled something. I did not take her from you. J. released the words one at a time. I ’ ve been having dreams, the man whispered. No. I will not listen to your dreams. I have had dreams, friend . J. spat. He paced the room with the easy vigour of an animal, fl aunting his vitality. His words cut through the smell of fi sh and illness, through the boy ’ s whimpering hum. I dream of her cunt, J. said. The English word was steely in his mouth. I pull a baby from her cunt. The baby ’ s stomach is round and full and I can see through the skin, I see another baby inside it, fi ve fi ngers pressed strong against the inside. I look at her face, sweating from labour, and I say, How is this possible? She laughs. Then I know that this is what happens when you use a woman with a used cunt. The man looked away fi rst. J. strode to the sink and spat in it. The boy was gone, his bowl upside down like an eye on the fl oor. J. stooped to pick it up and looked back at his boss. The man ’ s eyes were closed, his hands under the table. We should not talk about that woman. She is gone. She has been gone a long time. And the boy? The boy is gone too. The man turned on to his side, gingerly hitching up his knees. J. looked down at him. J. had long ago decided to hate that woman: a feeling which had clarity and could accommodate the appetite he had once felt for her body. But he knew that the man still loved her, that he scratched invisible messages to her in the sheets. J. was sorry for his old friend. But to say sorry would be preface to leaving and he would not leave until it was done. The sick man hiccupped in his sleep like a drunk or a child. J. switched off the lamp and left the room. When the door clicked shut, the man ’ s eyes opened. He reached under his pillow and the blade snipped him. The tiny pain in his thumb pulsed inside the throng of pain in his body, a whining in the midst of a howling. The man sucked the blood from his thumb and carefully nestled his hand back under the pillow to grasp the knife handle. He could not slow the reversed momentum of these dreams, but he would not succumb like a dog. He kept his eyes open as long as he could. A man shuf fl es through the dark, carrying a body over his shoulder. The legs dangle down the man ’ s front and bounce as he moves unsteadily down a corridor. He faces forwards but steps backwards. He turns and fumbles with a door knob. The bedroom door opens with a sucking sound. He bends slowly and lays the body on the bed. It tumbles down piecemeal, buttocks, then torso, then arms. The man stands and looks at it for a long time. All of a sudden, he pitches over the body. He seems grappled to it. A moan lifts and trips and falls into a scream cut short. Which comes fi rst? The knife handle abrading his palm? Or the wide agony in his chest? The man ’ s eyes open, he gasps. J. ’ s face fl oats above as if he had exhaled him: fl at as day, dark as night. His fi st is pressed hard to his own chest, his palm around the knife ’ s handle. J. ’ s fi ngers are wrapped around his, their hands a bolus of fl esh and bone, wood and blade. Together, they wrench the knife free of its home. Blood washes over him, its temperature perfect. The boy stood in the doorway of the kitchen, looking out. It was night. His bwana was at the bottom of the garden, busy with a black lump and a grey sack. The boy ’ s mind was empty but for a handful of notions – love, hunger, fear – darting like birds within, crashing into curved walls in a soundless, pitiless fury.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Purgatory For The Innocents” by Akosua Brenu.

Hurry up, Kofi,” the girl said to her little brother. He was always doing this, but she had learnt to remain patient with him. He was still only eight years old. He trudged along behind her, stopping and swinging his foot at stones and watching his feet slip through them each time. They got to the T-Junction. “C’mon Kofi” Naana called out to him yet again. The red car they had come to see was approaching from about 500 metres away. Kofi glided nonchalantly to her side, still trying to kick at stones. “Why do we have to come here again?” he asked, after slipping his feet through another small mass of little stones.”You know why Kofi. We have to find out what happened.””I don’t like coming here,” shrieked little Kofi. Then he stared at his feet and pouted his tiny lips. “I know Kofi … I know,” Naana replied in sympathy. She slid her palm into his and held on tight, “It will be over soon, I promise.” She spoke the words with little confidence. It was simply to soothe him. She had absolutely no idea when it will all end. She hated living this nightmare over and over again each year. You have to find out what really happened, The Master had said. She didn’t understand it. They had been coming on the same day for the past five years. Still, there was nothing different to see. She had no new revelations and neither had Kofi. He had always shut his eyes at some point, yet she reasoned that if there was something to be seen they surely should’ve seen it by now. After returning nine times already, The Master’s insistence was becoming tiresome. Naana doubted if there was indeed anything that had escaped sight. As they stood holding hands, the red Toyota Corolla was now within 200 metres of the T-Junction. On cue, the Tipper Truck poked its front bumper up the horizon of the Hill, from the right connecting road of the T-junction. The voices in the car soon became audible to Naana and Kofi now, and they could hear their mother singing from the front passengers’ seat. They saw their father nodding in that eternally funny way- his head bobbing up and down just like the bobble-head dog toy stuck to the top of his dashboard. And in the back seats, flailing their short arms all over the place and chanting to their mother’s singing, sat Naana and Kofi from exactly ten years ago. Kofi wore the same Ben 10 shirt he was wearing now. Naana, wore the same pink t-shirt with the big red love symbol embroidery on the front. Naana leaned forward from the side of the road and readied to peer carefully at the imminent scene. She felt Kofi try to slip his hand from her grip, but she held on tight and squeezed softly.The climax was staged in all of thirty seconds. Their father had spotted the Tipper Truck coming slowly from his left side and he judged accurately that he could move on ahead before the truck got to the intersection. Also, he expected the driver to slow down. But he had succeeded in getting to the midpoint of the crossroad before something punched the back side of his head above the head-rest of his seat. His head jerked forward and he lost control of the steering. The car suddenly spun to one side and lay directly in the path of the truck as the engine died. The shrill screams from within the car blocked any impulsive decision. The crash was as loud as Naana and Kofi remembered it, and the screams as piercing as ever. Naana turned away from the scene and dropped to her knees. She felt Kofi’s hand slip out of hers, but she didn’t try to hold on this time. She covered her face and began to weep into her palms, but there were no tears, only sorrowful gasps. Kofi stood with his mouth blank open. He had seen it. The scene had stayed the same for ten years, but he had finally seen it today. He had always shut his eyes just before the crash, but not today. Today, he had watched and finally seen it. Guilt enveloped him as he sunk to his knees by his sister. He wrapped his arms around her and sobbed out the tearless pain. “It was me, Naana. It was my fault!” “Noooo. It’s okay Kofi. It’s okay. We’ll keep trying. We’ll come back again. Next year.” she tried to calm him, empathizing with his exhaustion. “It was me. I d-d-didn’t know! It was me!” She hugged him tighter, “It’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll be fine. We’ll-“. He gently pushed himself out her arms and stepped a couple of feet backwards. He covered his eyes as he spoke. “No Naana! Listen! It was me, Naana! I looked! I saw it! IT WAS ME! I-I-I WAS THROWING MY HANDS AROUND. I HIT DADDY! I HIT DADDY! MY HAND HIT DADDY’S HEAD! OH GOD, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. IT WAS ME, NAANA!” Tyres screeched all around them as cars broke into a halt around the scene of the crash. His little voice sobbed above the wailing voices. He dashed to her and she collected him in her arms. The world suddenly began to grow silent around them, and the air around them began to spiral into a ball of spinning wind. They were swept up in their lock-arm posture, soaring into the clouds and fading into the sky above.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

MERAN by James McAdams

“Then at least tell me what the doctors say, to prove you care,” Meran had said. She was alone in the darkened apartment, splayed between blankets and heating pads, propped up by Hello Kitty pillows. Aromatherapy candles illuminated crumpled tissues, pill bottles, and insurance forms on the table where I used to snort cocaine and play drinking games with my old roommates. I felt domesticated, my life a numb vector between our apartment and The Recovery Lodge just down the road. I was annoyed thinking of Meran whining on the couch, researching symptoms on her iPad; resentful that her vague illness had diminished my life’s promised fun, distracting me from proximate pleasures; ashamed when I lied about working in order to see Vanessa (like I had earlier that day), which I used to believe was justified, but now realize what Meran knew all along — that there is no grace like serving, and no betrayal like neglect. Meran was 32 and I was 23 then, but her illness made her look pale and elfin, her features adolescent. While her body had wilted and whitened, her slender face had swelled from the prednisone. There was a rash in a U-shape above her lip from her constantly crying and blowing her nose, and her nose had begun to bleed a few weeks before. Our roles had reversed from when we first met at my older sister’s wedding a year ago (the two of them had been in Student Council together in high school), when I’d stagger from bars or parties to her place with my bloody and swollen face, which she’d tend to before putting me on the couch with water and aspirin. Meran skeeved my apartment because it was “gross”: the dishes gobbed with cheese and stacked in the sink, the soiled cushions on the couch, the smell of cigarettes and beer, semen stains on my deflated air-mattress. Unwashed towels hung over the windows and clothes laid in corners. “This place smells skunky,” she always said. The backyard plot was strewn with ripped trash bags, overflowing green bins of Keystone Ice, pizza boxes molded into Cubist shapes by the rain. I was unemployed at the time and slept all day, only awakening to texts from Meran with little sunshine emoticons accompanied by messages like “Get Up Mattie!” and “It’s a beautiful day!” I never thought of my behaviors or decisions as "Activities of Daily Living," or ADLs as they are termed at The Recovery Lodge. For months Meran had suggested I get a job at The Recovery Lodge as a Human Health Aide. I ignored her until I got my second DUI and my probation officer demanded I either become employed or enter rehab again. Meran helped me get a job where I’d assist clients with their ADLs. Most clients had just been released from mental hospitals, and most of the staff were work-release probates or divorced alcoholics. Together, The Recovery Lodge clients and I learned how to clean ovens, water plants, request money orders, avoid the evils of preservatives. We watched YouTube videos about "How to Tie Ties" and attended GED preparation meetings. On Saturday mornings we cleaned — usually with me using the vacuum, and the clients spraying Lysol on the counters and Febreze on the furniture. On Monday and Wednesday evenings I took them to AA and NA meetings on Lispert St, and I sat in the back, where it was harder to hear the stories of recovery. Then on Saturday afternoons, we all convened at the office for a community meal. The clients brought whatever they could make or purchase, small things like diet soda or crackers, while Meran taught me how to bake casseroles, peel potatoes, place the silverware in the proper arrangement. I had never before prepared anything aside from boiled pasta or burned Ellios pizza. When we all sat down to eat at the two plastic tables that had been moved together, Meran served everyone and then asked every person to tell the group about One Good Thing that had happened that week. Whenever she asked me, I said I thought I might be falling in love, and she blushed. Meran moved into my apartment like six months before that night — I think of it as the last night, at least the last night in spirit. With a kerchief tied around her flowing hair, she scrubbed the linoleum in the bathroom and kitchen, and removed and washed the towels in the windows, folding the towels in the bathroom closet and arranging the windows with tulips and peonies. I replaced my air mattress with a Queen-sized bed from Target and junked my desk from IKEA for a maple one her grandfather had built. For the first time in my life, I slept regular hours, stopped drinking and getting high. We vacationed at the shore and ate at restaurants requiring reservations; Meran giggled with her bright green eyes every time the manager made me wear a rented blazer. I learned what it’s like to share life with another person, to feel connected — that safe feeling I had never experienced before or since, knowing that whatever happened to me, with Meran I wouldn’t relapse, I wouldn’t use. One time we were on the couch watching the show LOST on some rainy Saturday. Neither of us were what you might call socialites, instead preferring to snuggle and talk, watch TV, play rummy, make models of each other from her construction paper and scissors. I asked her the question that had been on my mind since we’d met, “Why are you here? You could be with anyone. Not some junkie loser.” “You don’t have to know, Mattie,” she said. It wasn’t even a big moment. She said it so matter-of-factly. “Just hush,” she continued. “Enjoy yourself, enjoy us, being here now.” “So I’m like your project?” I asked. She rolled over so her eyes were looking up from my lap, folding her strong tan arms around my neck. She looked at me seriously and said, “I pick you. It’s my decision. You can hate yourself, but I love you, and you don’t have any right to ask me about it.” We were silent for a moment and then she broke into a gummy smile, all her perfect teeth showing, and said, “So stop worrying!” She pulled my face down to kiss her, biting my lip before letting go, and turned towards the TV and said, “Put on the next episode, it’s the one I was telling you about, the one with the Smoke Monster.” I hid the remote under the cushion. “You’ll have to earn it,” I said, my voice suggestive. She turned back towards me, her voice sarcastic, asking, “What are you thinking?” “Take care of the kid,” I said, gesturing towards my pants. “You mean this guy?” she asked, rubbing her palm softly over my crotch. “Has he been feeling neglected?” I nodded, hardening, leaning back on the couch as she shifted onto her knees and unzipped my jeans. “Perv,” she said, giggling. “He is a cute little guy, though.” It was the happiest time in my life, and it lasted less than six months before she became sick — something the monster in me blamed her for, no matter how much I tried to be good. *** My eyes adjusted to the darkened room, where it seemed like midnight even though it was only 7 at night. The National Geographic Channel broadcasted something about flowers, but Meran had muted the volume because she claimed the noise worsened her migraines. Outside, the others had finished-off the grill and threw now Frisbees at buckets, or red Dixie cups of Yuengling by their feet. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” I said, answering her question. I directed a clownish expression at her that used to make her laugh before everything bad began: the diseases, my cheating, the miscarriage, my written warnings from The Recovery Lodge for stealing pills. She blew her nose and said, “That’s the point. You won’t talk about it, you won’t say the names of the diseases, you’re just pretending that this isn’t happening." She stuffed the used Kleenex into a CVS bag full of them, not looking at me, her cat crouched on the couch’s arm, peering at the wallpaper’s design. “You know something’s wrong,” she persisted. “Look at me and tell me nothing’s wrong. Tell me what I have. Just share this with me, that’s all I’m asking. We both know what’s happening.” I knew some of the names of the diseases, but I didn’t like to discuss it. I didn’t know why she always wanted to, and changed the subject. “Want me to go get some tulips?” “Tulips smell too strong, they’re not good for my head. I’ve told you that.” “Maybe those chocolate things? You should treat yourself. It’ll get your mind off it.” “What’s it ?” she said. “Me being sick? Having crazy diseases nobody’s ever heard of and people all think I’m just whining and my own boyfriend can’t even be on my side?” Her declining health was the only thing she talked about anymore. She cringed forward, motioning with her one free arm (the other attached to her heart monitor) around the emptied room, sliding the iPad onto the ground beside the rumpled CVS bag. My Wii controllers and old drug paraphernalia were packed in her shoeboxes she’d stacked in the closet. The posters of supermodels and Death Metal bands had been removed and replaced with floral wallpaper. I sat on the rocking chair her grandmother had bequeathed to her when Meran announced her pregnancy at two months, the rocking making my buzz return as I slid towards the couch. “Hush babe,” I said, taking out the meds I’d hooked from the office. “‘Don’t tell me what to do, how I feel.’ Remember when you told me that? I’m here, I love you. Just be here with me.” I didn’t know if my words were true but I knew I needed to say them. I moved the bag with medications onto the table, helplessly holding the pills out to Meran like sacraments. Meran rocked, holding her stomach, two translucent strands of hair resting on her chapped lips. She inspected the pills, separating the chalky white painkillers, Percocet, Vicodin, and Talwin, from the Xanax footballs and cobalt Ambiens. She pointed at the Vicodin. “I can’t swallow those,” she said. “Instead of actually understanding, you just steal meds to shut me up.” “It’s just I don’t want to see you in pain.” “It’s not the pain, Mattie, it’s that it doesn’t work. That’s why it happened, the accident. It’s my stomach, and everything down there, y’know.” She sniffed and grabbed a tissue. “You’re never here anymore. Only if you’re feeling guilty. Even if you’re here you’re not really here. I can tell, I’m not stupid. This shit hasn’t affected my brain yet.” “I have to work, since you can’t...” “Oh right, I forgot everything’s my fault because I can’t work. You don’t think I want to work? You think I want to whine in the dark taking pills all day? Maybe that’s what you want but I have a life and values and things to offer, Mattie. This is bullshit. Everyone pretends to care until it’s inconvenient. It’s like I’m invisible. Just leave, give yourself a break.” She folded a pillow over her head and whipped back onto the couch, her face pressed into the cushions. “Close the window,” she mumbled. “I can’t stand hearing those people laughing.” I was chewing gum to hide the smell of alcohol, and placed my hoodie on the windowsill so she couldn’t smell smoke on it. From the window I saw them; it seemed the entire neighborhood was walking in sandals towards the community pool, beach towels slung over their shoulders or tied around their waists. The pool was located between the playground and the apartment complex’s fitness center (the triad advertised as the “Fun Zone” by the real estate company). It was situated as a sort of buffer between the condos and townhouses on our side of the rise — populated by college students and young unmarried couples — and the county-subsidized studio units of The Recovery Lodge on the lower side of the hill, where the constant floods turned the lawn a perpetual brown. The design was fucked up; often you couldn’t tell who was in recovery and who was not. Vanessa stood on the diving board, her blonde hair swaying, laughing with her head bent back and eyes closed. She wore a commercial smile that turned serious as she sloped her lean body down, splashing through the pool’s surface and gliding underwater until she emerged on the other side, elbow on the edge. Meran was either crying or moaning in pain, and I returned to sit on the couch without touching her. I was high and slightly buzzed from the three tequila shots and paranoid that I smelled like Vanessa’s strawberry conditioner. Meran and I stayed like that for minutes. I did not know how things had started with Vanessa and did not know how to end things with her. It was a thing that was happening that I pretended had no meaning, certainly nothing to do with Meran’s illnesses or inability to have sex. “Mattie?” Meran whispered. I rubbed her through a blanket her hips’ blades jutting out. “Sorry I was a bitch,” she said. I moved closer and rubbed her more, somewhere around her shoulders or neck. She didn’t respond. I rubbed her now the way I rubbed my dog as a boy, completely unlike the way I used to caress Meran. I removed the blanket as she groaned and sighed and turned towards me smiling, insatiable. This memory is still painful and awkward in a way I could never explain, except to ask someone to imagine what it’d be like to masturbate to the image of a dead person. “You don’t need to pretend you love me,” Meran said, mumbling into the pillows. “Don’t talk,” I said, stroking her hair and feeling her forehead. “Get some sleep.” “Will you be here tonight?” I told her I needed to work the overnight shift, but would only be a minute away if she needed me. “Is Vanessa working too?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I lied. “Doesn’t matter, I have GED stuff.” She was quiet for a minute, one of those periods of silence where you just know things are fucked, that silence says more than words. “Return the meds,” she said, “The Lodge needs them more than me. I can deal.” That evening, after Meran fell asleep I wiped away her tears and checked the heart monitor attached to her sternum for proper functioning. I cradled her body under one arm and tucked her into the bed we used to share, making sure she was on her right side so her heart wasn’t pressed down. I checked that the thermostat was set as her doctor had suggested and then returned to the room with the couch to dust off the table, throw away the tissues, and fold the blankets I’d sprayed with Febreze. Those were the days with Meran I remember, when I think of her now, a decade later. It’s a story I don’t tell because it makes me look like an asshole, there’s no getting around it. At the same time it reminds me of Meran’s heart — not her diseased heart, too sluggish to pump blood to her depleted body, but her soul’s heart, its compassion, love, empathy. Of all those who’d worked at The Recovery Lodge in those days, she was the only one who had started and ended her involvement as a volunteer, the only one who didn’t steal meds from patients. The only one who forwarded the office number to her own phone even when she was sleeping or too ill to intervene, just so she would know how everyone was. When I think of Meran’s heart I think of the possibilities of the human heart, those deep, curious passions I never felt except with her. I got crayons and construction paper and scissors Meran had used as an occupational therapist and took them out on the roof via the fire escape. From there you could see over the Fun Zone down to The Recovery Lodge, which consisted of roughly 25 to 30 identical brown brick units. I smoked a bowl I kept hidden with some pills and a flask behind the heat vent in what would have been the baby’s room; I located Meran’s browser history on her iPad, found bookmarked sites and apps for clinics and 501(3) organizations and FAQS for disease names I had heard her mention and seen on insurance forms. I drew a cartoon picture of Meran as a little girl with black pigtails and puffy cartoonish hands and feet and described the conditions in little text-clouds with arrows pointing to the parts of the body involved (for example, “Meran’s heart has an arrhythmia that causes dehydration and fatigue”), and on the other side I drew that same reversed body with different text-clouds (for example, “Meran’s heart is full of love and deserving of my love”). I cut shards of pink paper and folded them into hearts like Mrs. Wendelsam taught us in third grade, and then texted Vanessa that I would be at the office in 20 minutes if she were in the mood. At the time I didn’t intend the hearts to be a break-up note, but rather an indication that I understood what was wrong and cared and was declaring my vows to stick by her — yet now I realize it was me pushing her away. I called it “What’s Wrong with Meran/What’s Right with Meran” and left it beside her bed (I no longer considered it “our” bed), hoping it would make her happy or provide a moment’s relief, while already feeling on her cheeks the night sweats that would soak her covers in two hours. And it did help for a while, she told me once later, before it didn’t matter anymore. *** There is no language for a confession or expression of guilt that doesn’t at the same time implicitly ask forgiveness, even if the person betrayed is absent. The language I’m using is insufficient to convey the tragedy of Meran’s isolation and the forfeiture of my opportunity to save her the way she had, for a while, saved me. What Meran had taught me about the nature of love and sacrifice and the ethos of the gift — where you give without considering compensation — was backwards from the way I lived. The latter reminded me of what Mr. Spomane and the counselors said repeatedly about substances: that we Addicts used them because substances required nothing from us. *** After I left her, I talked to Meran only once before she died. I was back in the same rehab again. The people there were the same people who were there in-and-out over the past decade. My family had long since given up on me and my friends were all dead or in other rehabs. I spent my days curled up on the couch alone, thinking of where my life had gone wrong, all the pivotal moments that had led to this, all the girls I had been with and I questioned what had gone wrong with each one. I couldn’t identify anything. I told myself it was just bad luck, bad timing, it wasn’t meant to be, but when I thought of Meran I knew that I had been at fault, that I had allowed my thoughts about what my life should be like to distract me from the truth and reality of that life. Our counselor, Mr. Spomane, liked to say you do something before you think of something, and the doing creates the emotion. That’s the opposite from how we normally conceive of how emotions work. This is why we felt better even after praying to a God we didn’t believe in, he said; the behavior created the emotion. What I prayed was that I could have ignored Vanessa and my idealized visions of fun, not thought about Meran’s illness as being unfair, and just acted with Meran the way I did with my clients. I should have helped her with her ADLs, I should have listened, I should have left our connection unsevered. I wanted to tell her this, to apologize. I got my chance when she showed up unannounced at the rehab unit with her fiancée. This was like two years ago. A strange man wheeled her in, clearing a spot in front of the soiled couch I was lying on. Meran looked even frailer than before, with some kind of port distending from her abdomen, and her legs were so palsied it was like half her body was in a fetal position. But there was still an aura or a spark — I think I loved her again then, but I might just think that now, looking back, trying to be a good person. I stumbled up from the couch, repeating Meran’s name in a weird cadence, hugging her gently in the chair, barely touching her, as if she would crack if touched. “You look good,” I said. She smirked. “We’re past all that, Mattie. I know what I look like.” Her teeth were yellow and her gums splotched with blood. She had what she identified as a PICC line in her arm’s vein, connected to a fluid container taped to the wheelchair. Even though it was summer, she was wearing a hoodie and sweatpants with heavy exercise socks. I noticed her nails, which had always been manicured and painted, were chewed up and grey, as if they weren’t part of her anymore, like old gloves. “Well it’s not like I’m model of the year either,” I joked. I was wearing a tracksuit from Goodwill I hated but which adsorbed my sweating and concealed my weight gain. She smiled and looked over at the man beside her. He was taller and older. They clenched palms. He was completely bald and had one of those tracheotomy things from smoking inserted into his throat. He gave me a thumbs-up and then kissed her on the cheek. “This is quite a girl,” he said, his voice sounding robotic. “She’s an angel.” “She is.” “Mattie?” Meran paused. “Mattie, this is Gottfried, we’re getting married next week. Nothing big, just family, friends, a civil union thing, but there will be food and dancing and stuff for people who can do that. You should come.” “Next week?” I said. “Well, we better do it soon before we’re dead,” she said, looking up at Gottfried with a smile. He caressed her PICC line, ensuring it stayed inserted. “We met at a recovery meeting,” Gottfried told me, as if I had asked. He smiled and pulled at his moustache. I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her, a thin vague memory in my mind of vomiting at my sister’s wedding all those years ago, and Meran cleaning me up, holding me over the toilet, making me drink water. Gottfried stuck his hand out. “Nice meeting you,” his robotic voice said. “I figure I’ll give you two some time alone.” He bent down and kissed Meran. “Let me know when you need me." Meran gave me one of those smiles that looks like a wince. She rotated her wheelchair so she was sitting closer to me. We tangled our fingers together. “I was an asshole,” I said. “I should have stayed, been there for you.” I paused. “I deserve to rot in this place.” “You were,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you still are. You’re young, Mattie, you have time, you have life. That’s all you need to recover.” “I’m sorry...” “Stop,” she said. “I don’t hate you. That was a hard time for a lot of people, I lost a lot of friends. The way to tell who your friends are is to get sick, believe me.” We traced our fingers more, in a sort of trance. Meran looked up at me with concern but also a smile, a weak smile that seemed to contain special knowledge. “I don’t blame you Mattie, you just couldn’t handle it,” she finally whispered in my ear, before motioning for Gottfried. “Please come to the wedding.” She left me with some flowers and a little cutout figurine that said “What’s Right About Mattie.” I reversed the figurine but the other side was empty; all it said was “What’s Wrong with Mattie?” with the question mark circled with a heart. They left and I flaked out on the couch, in awe of Meran’s grace, her strength and bravery. I went to the rec room, signed out scissors and markers that some of us huffed, and asked for construction paper from the staff. “What for?” “A wedding card,” I said. “For fuck’s sake,” he said. I made the same card as I did that last night with Meran, but only used one side this time, focusing on what was right about her, what I loved about her, what I was sorry for. The only way to truly apologize, I figured, would be to ensure that Meran knew how I’d never forgotten her, how nobody had, how she had changed everyone’s life for the better. I wrote all that and finished the card, and wrote Meran a letter of confession, signed it “Love Always” and folded it inside the card. The next day a counselor my height brought in one of his suits for me, and the other patients in rehab pitched in for me to purchase a $20 gift card for Starbucks as a wedding gift. I’d just received a special pass to leave the unit when Gottfried called the nurse’s office two days before the wedding, his robot voice informing me that Meran was dead. The head nurse only let me listen to the message twice before she deleted it. I didn’t attend the funeral but used my pass for the memorial, where only Gottfried recognized me. He shook my hand weakly and said, “She’d be glad you’re here. I’ll leave you to pay your respects.” As I waited in line, my heart palpitating and hands trembling, I looked with an odd kind of reverence at the picture of her on the mantle over the coffin. She was standing in the Fun Zone surrounded by clients from The Recovery Lodge — standing in the middle, smaller than all of those who huddled over her in awkward embraces. Her gummy smile, her alert eyes peered directly at the camera, at me. I had taken that picture. That picnic occurred only one week after the miscarriage, which she swore me not to tell anyone about because she never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. I stared down at her corpse. Not having come up with a better plan, I removed a slip of paper from my pocket and began reciting the names of the diseases (most of which I couldn’t pronounce) — Ulcerative Colitis, Marvan Disorder, Dysautonomia, Panic Disorder, Mantle Cell Leukemia/Blastoid Variant — hoping that the God Mr. Spomane encouraged me to pray to would allow Meran’s soul to observe me finally accede to her desires, that is, to acknowledge in person what had happened to her, to understand her life, to tell it straight like she always wanted. I doubt it’ll help this time, but I’m going to act like it will. James McAdams has published fiction in TINGE Magazine and Carbon Culture Review, serial microfictions in the Annals of American Psychotherapy, as well as forthcoming fiction pieces in per contra and Literary Orphans. He received his B.A. in English/Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.A. in English from Villanova. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university's literary journal, Amaranth.

SOUP by Chikodili Emelumadu

Chikodili Emelumadu is a Nigerian writer and broadcaster living in London. When she is not writing, she spends her time looking for a way through platform 9¾ in Kings’ Cross station, Yggdrasil, or any other portals between worlds — she’s not picky. She has been published in Eclectica Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Apex Magazine and is currently nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award.
Akwaugo swore at the catfish, as she tossed and caught the short machete by its handle. She hated the smell of fresh fish and this one possessed a particularly nasty odour. Akwaugo couldn’t wait to turn it into a fragrant, fresh fish pepper-soup. The knife, which once belonged to her mother, had tackled every edible creature, from fish to pig to cow and then some. When she was young, Akwaugo had hung around her mother’s feet in the kitchen, the woman’s own dwarf shadow. She could see her mother now in her mind’s eye. Her mother would be wearing a red and yellow English Gold Dutch wax tied around her chest or waist, and lifting out a goat’s head from her industrial-sized pot with two perforated spoons the size of side-plates. The steam would give her face the dewy glow of a new bride. She’d make short work of the skull to reveal the gelatinous brain beneath. Her husband, Akwaugo’s father, had always been partial to a bit of brain in his ngwo-ngwo. Akwaugo made to wipe the dusty knife against her skirt and paused. She’d just sharpened it against a stone in the backyard. It would not do to cut her clothing after she had to wait so long for her father to give her the money for it. Akwaugo cleaned the blade on her forearm instead, nicking her flesh. Three droplets of blood swelled out and she smudged them with her thumb. The catfish in the basin stared up at Akwaugo, its mud-grey flesh glistening. It was as big as a grown man’s thighs, placed end to end and lay still as if to save energy. There was barely enough water in the basin for it to swim about. That was the best way of keeping a creature of its size submissive. Killing it would prove difficult otherwise. The catfish’s tail hung over the side of the basin. Akwaugo prodded it with the square head of the blade, but the fish paid her no mind. It had grown weaker in the hour that she had waited for her father to come home and tell her what to do with the gift his friend Onuigbo had dropped off. “Useless man,” Akwaugo muttered under her breath. She saw through Onuigbo. He only brought the fish so her father would forgive Onuigbo’s debt — which her father would probably do, because he was bad with money. Worse, the “gift-giver” had returned with her father to fill his stomach. Akwaugo kissed her teeth. What kind of person did that? Now, the fish would be finished today. If it were up to her, she would have saved a great deal of the meat for smoking. The woodsy flavour went better with her favourite palm oil-based stews like ora and egusi. Her mouth watered. Akwaugo was tempted to spit in the pot, but why? She was a good cook and the fish would still taste divine. “Is the soup ready?” her father shouted from the parlour. There was a chorus of assent from his cohorts. Even if Onuigbo had not dropped off the gift, there would be guests. Her father diligently gathered the neighbours every evening, before he even knew if there was enough to feed them. It was as if he was afraid to be alone with his children, now that his wife, the buffer, was no longer alive. Her father held his visitors captive, pouring drinks, ordering dishes from the kitchen, sending out for more bottles of beer when reserves ran low. They’d chat into the night, as Akwaugo nodded off on the kitchen stool. It was only after the wives started ringing their husbands’ mobiles that her father relented. Even then, he lingered by the gate, drawing out the goodbyes. Akwaugo sighed. The bottom of her pot had only just touched the flame and already the natives were getting restless. She raised her fingers to her nostrils. The smell of the roasted calabash nutmeg she had pounded for the soup clung to her fingers. Her mouth still watered, but she knew she would not get a bite of the delicious fish, not until all the men were done. Even her younger brother Ifeanyi — the brat — would eat before she did. Akwaugo would end up with the bone-plated head of the fish, if she was lucky. But it was only good manners, after all. They had guests. She had spread newspapers all over the painted concrete floor of the kitchen, around the aluminium basin that was as wide as an inflatable paddling pool. The fish was not one for the kitchen counter — the force required to kill it would destroy the worktops. She’d have to carry the fish like a baby and place it on the newspapers for gutting. Her shirt would stink. Akwaugo stepped onto the newspapers now, bracing herself for the weight of the fish. Turning her face away from its beady eyes and the whiskers that gave it its name, she laid the knife on the floor, bent over the basin, clutched the fish in both hands and pulled. It did not budge. She bent lower and heaved, gagging at the smell. The fish’s eyes roved in sharp, sudden movements. Akwaugo bent lower still, until her cheek was almost against it. The fish felt as heavy as a sack of wet rice. The pot was on the cusp of boiling. The scent of spices wafted up, borne on invisible wisps of steam. The pepper scratched at her nostrils. Akwaugo froze. She sneezed so hard, the skin of the catfish became mottled. “To your life,” said the catfish, its voice rising no more than a whisper. Akwaugo fell back empty-handed against the newspapers, legs flailing. Her breath echoed in the kitchen. The knife had skidded under the cracked, imitation-wood, Formica cabinet. Akwaugo scooted on her bottom and slowly reached for the knife, without taking her eyes off the fish in front of her. Flies buzzed against the mosquito-netted windows. And someone stomped along the tiled corridor coming towards the kitchen. “What are you doing lying on the floor?” asked her brother, Ifeanyi. His voice had a peculiar, manlike quality to it which usually annoyed Akwaugo, but she did not even notice that this time. “Dad wants to know what is keeping you. People are hungry. How long does it take to—” “The fish—” she said, pointing. “Yes. The fish. You’re supposed to cook it. Our guests are hungry.” He sighed and Akwaugo knew all he wanted to do was get back to the game on his phone. The boredom in his voice caused her to recover a bit of composure. She stood up, big sisterly. “You know you could help,” she said. “I can,” said Ifeanyi. “But it’s a girl’s job.” “When mummy was alive—” “Well, she isn’t. And you’re not her.” “Stupid boy,” Akwaugo growled. “Go and tell them I am coming.” Ifeanyi was gone before she’d even finished talking. She approached the fish, heart rattling like an avocado seed in her chest. She bent over it again. “That boy...needs teaching some manners,” said the fish. It spoke softly, with plenty of pauses in between, as if covering for a stutter. This time, even though Akwaugo jolted, she did not move away. “You are talking,” she said. The fish sighed, blowing bubbles out of the side of its mouth. “Water,” it said. Akwaugo rushed to the water drum in the kitchen, filled a bowl and poured it over the fish. She did it again and again until the water was almost to the brim. The fish sighed once more, bubbles breaking out. It started to change colour; from a dark blue-grey, to a lighter metallic blue, to silver. It flipped its tail and caught the sunlight pouring through the mosquito-netted back porch. Akwaugo shielded her eyes. The fish glimmered like tinfoil. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The fish slid more of its tail into the basin. “What are you trying to do?” asked Akwaugo. “Sit up. How else are we to see each other, have a proper conversation? Unless you want to lie down?” replied the fish, gargling. It popped up, nose holes first, then mouth. Catfish always confused Akwaugo with those holes that looked like eyes, and so for a second, she found herself observing the wrong part of its face. When she finally found its eyes, it was watching her again. “Look, if you’ve finished staring, there’s something I must tell you,” it said. “You know Onuigbo came for your hand in marriage, right? I am his asking-gift.” Akwaugo’s jaw dropped open. “What?” “We are both in the same pot of soup. But if you help me, I’ll help you too.” “I’m too young for marriage!” Akwaugo’s eyes flashed. “Well, he’s not. He’s been a bachelor all his life, supposedly waiting for the right woman.” The fish flicked its eyes to her face and then around the room. “Waiting for you.” Silence as Akwaugo pondered this new information. It was true that Onuigbo often called her ”my wife,” but so did a lot of men. It was just a thing they said to young girls. It meant nothing, surely? The fish’s jerky eye motion made her anxious. The lid on the pot began to tap out a rhythm, tap, tap, tap, borne by the bubbles within. The air thickened with vapour. Sweat travelled along the line of Akwaugo’s spine, slipping under the waistband of her skirt and between her buttocks. She squirmed. Her eyes narrowed. “How do you know?” she asked the fish. “I’m a fish that talks, and that is what you ask me?” It turned over on its other side, sloshing water over the rim of the basin and onto the newspaper. Light from the ripples over its skin danced on the ceiling. “Akwaugo!” shouted her father. “What is keeping you?!” “I am coming, father, just bringing it,” she shouted back. “What should I do?” she asked the fish. “The food should be ready by now. If I go in there with nothing, my father will flog me after his friends leave.” “Mm,” said the fish, looking deep in thought. It paused, slipping its head back under the water, opening and closing its mouth silently. Akwaugo cast her eyes back towards the living room, wrung her hands. “If it were me, I would flog him first,” it said. “What kind of nonsense talk is that?” asked Akwaugo. Her throat tightened so that she hissed the question. “Or you can do nothing. What do I know? I am a fish. It’s not as if anyone can marry me off against my will.” “My father wouldn’t do that,” said Akwaugo. “No, no. Of course not,” said the fish. “I’m sure your mother wouldn’t let him.” “My mother is dead.” “Oh,” said the fish. Its eye flicked this way and that. “Then I am sure he wouldn’t. I am sure he loves you.” “What reason would he have to marry me off to Onuigbo?” asked Akwaugo, not listening. “Or marry me off to anyone for that matter? I mean, I haven’t finished secondary school!” “Akwaugo Maria!” her father yelled. “Just adding the salt, father!” Akwaugo got up and banged a few cupboard doors for effect. “This house we live in is ours, we don’t owe anybody,” she continued, talking very fast. “We are not starving and even if we were, how would marrying Onuigbo help? The man is my father’s debtor.” As she poked holes in the fish’s story, Akwaugo’s voice grew stronger and stronger. The fish shrugged. “I can’t explain it.” Akwaugo straightened up. She picked up the machete again. “You are a very bad fish. You just want to save yourself from being eaten which is why you are telling me all these lies.” She advanced. “Now hold still. I’m going to kill you.” “Who’s this Timi I keep hearing about?” asked the fish, suddenly. Akwaugo paused with her hand upraised. “Timi? Why? Who is talking about her?” The fish shrugged again. “Nothing o. It’s just...well,” its eyes glanced at Akwaugo and away again. “Your father seems very interested in her. In making her the second Mrs Mmaku. Or so I hear.” “That’s a lie,” said Akwaugo. “Why are you lying?” She felt power go out of her. The hand with the machete lay limp at her side. If the fish was a goat’s head, she would have finished preparing it by now, she thought. They didn’t talk back. “Exactly. Why would I lie? I am telling you what I heard, that’s all. You know the Timi that cooks by old UNIZIK junction?” Akwaugo knew who Timi was — Aunty T, they called her. Everyone did. She owned the famous Timi’s Place, a buka and beer parlour. It had somehow been allowed not only to stand, but expand into a proper breezeblock structure, long after the state governor cleared the junction of other illegal stalls. They said Timi cooked more than food in that place at night. Her girls were legendary. They said politicians came to her under the cover of night, that she helped them move things. What things, no one ever told Akwaugo, but somehow the ambiguity added to Timi’s mystique. How would her father have met Timi? Akwaugo made all her father’s meals as she had repeatedly promised her mother, in what turned out to be her final days. “A man who is allowed to frequent beer parlours is a lost cause,” her mother often said, as they laboured in the kitchen. Shame pounded in the pit of Akwaugo’s belly. Was her father now a lost cause? In her mind, she ran through the years since her mother had died. He had been late coming back more than a few times, especially in the last few months. Could it be that he had not been avoiding her and Ifeanyi after all? A chemically sweet whiff often emanated from his laundry — was that what Timi smelled like? Timi was a Big Madam, a gold ring on every finger. What would she want with her old father? He was not as rich as a politician, nor young, nor particularly interesting. He ran a pharmacy. Akwaugo asked the fish as much. “Well,” the fish began in its low voice full of pauses. “Erm, people fulfil different functions in life, don’t they? She likes him, he likes her. Your father, he is not made of firewood, you know. You cannot do your job, Akwaugo, and do someone else’s.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Then as the meaning of the fish’s words became apparent, Akwaugo’s brow wrinkled. “That is disgusting,” she said. “Exactly. Look, you’re a smart girl,” said the fish, lowering its tone further so that she had to kneel down to hear it. “Do you think your father wants you in the house when he brings in his new lady love? And you, looking so very like your mother...” Akwaugo’s sharp intake of breath caused her lungs to fill with the peppery air. She sneezed again. The pot was boiling over. The house filled up with a fragrant steam and the silence from the parlour told her that its occupants were not oblivious to the aroma. Her own stomach rumbled. Akwaugo scrambled to her feet and turned down the flame on the stove. She closed the door leading into the corridor as well. “How do you know my mother?” asked Akwaugo. “I don’t. But I know Timi. That woman can cook, no juju necessary. Many of my comrades have perished in her pot. A few went willingly, I’m told. Some are just like that, I suppose. They just give up, go along with things.” It sighed. “I am tired of talking. Kill me if you’re going to kill me, but don’t bore me to death with indecisiveness.” It rolled over and presented Akwaugo with its spine. Akwaugo started to pace. “Am I that kind of person?” she asked herself. “Do I just go along with things?” She thought about how wild her brother Ifeanyi had become. Anyone else in her position, six years older, would have been firmer with him. Instead, she let their relatives indulge him, as if he was the only one who had lost a mother. They served him treats like guinea fowl eggs and sugared buns, in place of proper meals. They allowed him to stay home from school for longer than was necessary. If anything, their sympathy was misplaced; Ifeanyi had been too young to remember their mother properly, Akwaugo thought. The woman had been sick for half his life. Akwaugo had their mother to herself for years before Ifeanyi was born. She should have known what their mother planned to do. She should have suspected. By the time she was four, Akwaugo knew all her mother’s moods, had studied them with the single-minded devotion a child bestows on its obsessions. She knew the woman even better than her father did. That day, her mother had dressed up in front of the revolving mirror on her dressing table. Akwaugo watched her sitting there in a white bra and slip, dabbing several brushes on the little square windows of colour in her make-up palette. She favoured roses and reds and pinks, to offset a golden complexion. Akwaugo’s mother spotted her child peeking through the door; she called her into the room and while Akwaugo zipped her into her dress, made Akwaugo promise to look after the family. Then she went and threw herself in front of a lorry laden with tomatoes from Jos. There had not even been enough of her to bury. Akwaugo did not realise until today how much she’d failed in her duty. Her mother had trusted her to raise her little brother. Akwaugo tried, in the beginning. She’d made sure Ifeanyi did his homework, did his chores, and brushed his teeth. He had worn clean socks and had his uniforms washed and ironed. Then, when Ifeanyi’s behaviour worsened, Akwaugo had tried to step in. Her father had stopped her. “Let the boy grieve — not that she deserves it,” he’d said, taking a swig of his beer. As if Ifeanyi even understood grief, she thought. The males in the family seemed to have moved on okay. Her brother played his games while her father entertained friends and — now, Akwaugo had learned — also chased Timi. Only she, Akwaugo, still remembered their mother. And now they wanted to marry her off, so that they could just forget her too? As she paced, the newspaper crinkled underfoot. She looked up at the ceiling, lost in contemplation and caught sight of a cobweb just above the corner of the door. Her nostrils flared. She had asked Ifeanyi to get rid of it during the morning’s weekend clean-up. “Akwaugo!” came her father’s loud voice again. A mumble of voices in the corridor. She recognised her father and Onuigbo. The fish flicked water at her with its tail. “Do you have mushrooms?” it asked. “I hear sometimes Timi puts mushrooms in her pepper-soup instead of fish, and nobody can tell the difference.” Akwaugo could detect a hint of panic beneath the languorous tone it used. The situation ignited the same emotion in her. Panic. And rage. Rage against the cobweb, against the rumble in her stomach. Against the corridor which distorted voices, making them seem louder and nearer than they were. Akwaugo’s rage was so powerful it nearly threw her to the ground. She gripped her machete tighter, gritted her teeth. Shadows lengthened on the kitchen floor as the sun slipped its feet behind a cloud. “What is keeping this girl?” said her father’s voice. “Here they come,” said the fish. “He sounds mad.” The door handle twisted and Akwaugo swung at the gap without thinking, entirely on instinct. The first blow caught Onuigbo in the middle of his face. Always make sure you split goat head in the middle, Akwaugo. You see? Where the bones are joined? Makes it easy to take out the brain. It was the wet, popping sound of a coconut breaking. She pulled on the machete and Onuigbo lurched forward, mouth open, in a scream without sound. Akwaugo held on with two hands and yanked, crunching, splintering. She pulled out the machete, swung again and caught her father’s surprised face on the jaw, right under his teeth. Don’t let the teeth get into the meat mixture, Akwa m. It will spoil the ngwo-ngwo and is unpleasant to eat. Her father’s teeth scattered like kernels of corn all over the concrete. On his knees he stared at her, hands over where his jaw used to be. The noise brought the guests running. Akwaugo sliced the air in front of her, not seeing where she was going, what she was doing. The ears are nice and crunchy. Just make sure you clean the insides well. Pay attention, Akwaugo, or they will say I did not raise you well. An ear fell juddering to her foot. The guests pushed and climbed over one another to get out of the corridor. They sped past the reception room, toppling the extra chairs brought in from the dining room. They left behind mobile phones, wallets, half-empty bottles and glasses lined with foam. Akwaugo gave chase, glorying in the movement of her body, the destructive force of her might. She was fascinated by her own arms, her own legs. She hacked through the glass-topped nesting stools and the coffee table, smashed bottles, only stopping when she came upon her brother, who was cowering by the speakers. The whites of his eyes shone in his face. “You didn’t remove the cobwebs like I asked,” she said, hands on her hip. He nodded or shook his head, Akwaugo was not sure. Something slithered into her eye. She rubbed her hand over it, flicked it away. “Tidy up this place,” she said, taking his phone. “And no more games.” “Yes, sister.” He got up, picking up the pieces of broken glass, clearing the remains. He held out the front of his shirt like a basket to carry the debris. Akwaugo returned to the kitchen to survey her handiwork. The newspaper on the floor was a paper mache of carnage. The fish’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed. It gulped the now rose-tinted water, breathed it back out. Outside, a wind started up. “I guess you showed them,” said the fish. Akwaugo considered its words and decided that yes, she had. She was proud. Her mother would be too. Her father was not lost anymore, not while lying in a broken heap, trying to keep his tongue from snaking out all over his neck. Timi certainly wouldn’t want him now. Her father was safe. And her brother was tidying up. She had a feeling it would not be the last time he cleaned. Akwaugo rustled around in the pantry and came out with a waterproof Ghana-Must-Go bag. She filled it part-ways from the tap. “Are we going somewhere?” the fish asked, twitching its tiny, glassy eyes. “I’m taking you home,” said Akwaugo. “No soup pots for either of us today.” She clutched the fish to her bosom and lifted it, plonking it in the bag. She grasped both zips in her hands and closed it, leaving a gap in the middle for air. Outside, Akwaugo hailed an okada. “Where to?” its rider asked. Akwaugo thought for a while. The fish jiggled in the bag. “Tell him Ezu River,” it stuttered. Akwaugo relayed the request, tucking her skirt in between her thighs to stop it blowing up over her hips. The okada man noted the wildness in her eyes, the blood on her clothing. He hesitated. But the skies had darkened, as though shaded by a pencil. She would probably be the last fare he picked up until the rains were over. “Hop on.” All the way, the fish jiggled and splashed in the bag. The wind pushed at the okada’s back, doubling their speed. Lightning winked between rain clouds. “Stop here!” Akwaugo said. The thunder seemed to echo her command. The wind was almost a solid force now, pushing her into the underbrush as she walked the path down to the water. Akwaugo took care to place her feet into footholds gouged out of the packed, red earth. She clutched the handles of the bag in tacky hands. Akwaugo got to the bank of the tossing Ezu, the river as wide as three dual carriageways. Goose pimples erupted on her skin from the cold. The trees lining the banks flung their heads in the gale, their euphoria the same as hers. The fish wiggled, glad to smell home again. Akwaugo stepped into the water and immersed the open bag. The fish flipped and pranced, looking all the while like liquid lightning beneath the churning water, a mirror image of the sky.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Kwani? Open Mic July 2015 Edition

Featured Poet: Raya Wambui MC: Cindy Ogana Date: 7th July 2015 Time: 7.00pm - 9.30pm Venue: The Phoenix Players, Parliament Rd, Inside Professional Centre Entry: Kes. 300 at the gate. Advance tickets only via Mpesa at Kes 200* *Simply select "Buy Goods" on your MPesa menu, enter the "Till Number" (56714) and follow instructions to complete transaction. Raya Wambui wrote her first poem when she was only five years old, and has been writing consistently for fifteen years. She describes poetry as passion meeting purpose. She began performing her poetry four years ago, and fell completely in love with the opportunity it provided to interact directly with the audience. She believes that her driving force is the immortality that comes with being able to express personal and social issues in a way that inspires healing and positivity. Her main topics of focus are social inequalities (gender and economic), injustices and personal struggles and triumphs. Her content is passionate, expressive and emotive, strongly influenced and inspired by local imagery, current affairs and the idea that hoping and working towards a brighter tomorrow is our best bet at achieving a brighter future. For her, poetry is a means of expression and communication that encompasses the viewpoints and experiences of people who have never met, to bring meaning to life experiences, commonalities and differences through words. It is the culmination of the senses, visual, audio and sensual, into linguistic fluidity with purpose. She is a Slam Africa Queen (Nairobi’s longest running poetry slam competition) and the laureate of the Nairobi edition of The Spoken Word Project. She has organised and performed at numerous poetry events in Nairobi and continues to do so. Her wish is to be remembered as a poet. As someone who inspired hope, as someone who encouraged positive change. Blog: rayawambui.wordpress.com Twitter: @Raya_Wambui

Friday, March 13, 2015

At The Goethe-Institut Nairobi, this coming Thursday, 19 March.

Cover Photo Public Reading & Discussion Through this new series the Goethe-Institut Kenya provides a forum for Kenyan authors to interact with their audiences in open conversation. In the second edition, we meet two first-time authors, Ndiritu Wahome and Ciku Kimeria in a moderated panel discussion where they talk about their work as writers and experiences in the Kenyan literary scene. Born in 1987, Ndiritu Wahome started writing at the age of 13. He is passionate about writing and other art forms. In The Sad Artist and Other Fairytales, he engages his readers with a collection of fairytales for all ages. It is a captivating journey that defies time and reality yet remains relevant. Ciku Kimeria lives and works in Kenya as a consultant focusing on international development issues. In her debut novel Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges she presents the tumultuous marriage of a middle aged Kenyan power couple as it is told by different parties in their life. Goethe-Institut, Auditorium Admission: free

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"They All Matter Just The Same" a short story by Rahiem Whisgary

What an ignoble way to die, I think to myself. A slow surrender rather than a fight. The teaspoon dangles from my fingers, a single drop lingering on the tip, swelling, biding time. When it finally falls, the ants scatter. Some do not escape. I splay my fingers, admiring the dry, reptilian webs in between. My hands, though grey, are plump. My palms scratch when I rub them together. I imagine that, like a fly, my hands carry diseases – dysentery, typhoid fever, poliomyelitis. Disease comes with dirt, age and idleness. For as long as I can remember, my hands have always been a handsome pair: my fingers long and my nails square. Though big, they are delicately veined. There is a distinct womanly elegance to them. Everything is covered in dust. When I look at the shaft of light streaming through the window, I see flecks suspended in air, like stewed tea. There’s no milk. Ants float in dark, oily puddles, their bloated carcasses swept towards the edge of the table. After a few minutes, the pool of damp is absorbed by the cloth. Time passes in waves: I am engulfed by moments of rumination, my body stock-still, before being overtaken by bouts of fidgeting. I am a private, insignificant person. My life is one long, lugubrious moment – an extended period of post-coital lethargy. The trail of ants stretches from an unsealed seam between the wall and the kitchen cabinet, along the floor and up one of the legs of the table. I grip the handle of the cup. My fingers furl so tightly that they turn white. As white as a shroud. The handle snaps. Hundreds of ants drown in the tepid liquid. The warmth and wetness accentuate my furrows: my hands, the unwilling conspirators to my killing, are unsexed and old. The trail doesn’t stop, despite the flood, hankering as ants do after invisible crumbs. It moves onwards, without fear of the future. Or perhaps its mission has changed. Perhaps they’re now coming to collect their dead. I pick out carcasses from spilled tea. My fingers work gingerly. No one ant is distinguishable from the next, and they all matter just the same, which is not much at all. I get up and make another cup of tea.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"(Re)membering Kenya - Vol.3".

This Friday 20th February, at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi, a one of a kind book launch will be taking place; "(Re)membering Kenya - Vol.3". The book attempts to interrogate the interplay between economics and other issues such as gender, education, environment and health by recognising that how and where people make money often shapes their relationship with others in the same or in different spaces of production. Two volumes were already published by Twaweza Communications and edited by George Gona and Mbugua wa-Mungai. Listen to a public lecture Mbugua wa-Mungai: The launch starts at 6 pm, at Goethe-Institut Auditorium, Admission free!

The STORY CLUB Malawi

The Story Club Malawi in partnership with Panafrica Publishers Ltd; An African publisher based in Malawi, is pleased to announce a call for submission to the anthology IMAGINE AFRICA 500. We urge writers from all over the African continent and in diaspora to give us their dreams, their dreads, their hopes, their fictions about the future in Africa in 500 years from now. To participate, send us your short story, on any theme, about Africa set 500 from now.10 best short submitted works will be published in the anthology shortly thereafter. All writers who submit their work will hear from us. Submission details: 1. Submission deadline is March 15, 2015 at 12:00 midnight. 2. A short story of between 3000 – 3500 words. 3. Must be in English 4. The story must be un published 5. on any subject but it should be about Africa and set 500 years from now 6. The authors must be born in Africa, or nationals of an African country, or whose parents are African. 7. Authors must submit a short biography of themselves. 300 words maximum 8. All submissions should be sent to shadai79@yahoo.com 9. Submission is limited to two stories per author 10. All submission should be in Microsoft Word; Use a single, clear font, 12 point size. The best to use is Times New Roman. 11. Use clear black text on a white background. 12. Include your name and contact information at the top left of the first page. Put an accurate word count at the top right. Put the title half-way down the page, centred, with “by Your Name” underneath. Start the story beneath that. 13. Put your name, story title and the page number as a right-justified header on every subsequent page, in the format Name/Title/Page Number. 14. Left-justify your paragraphs. Right margins should be “ragged”. 15. The Story Club is a new initiative in Malawi and is currently not funded; we hope to use the funds realized from this publication to publish subsequent anthologies. As such we will not be able to pay writers for accepted submissions. 16. By participating the authors are permitting the Story Club to submit the stories to such competitions as the Caine Prize and other available prizes. 17. All copy rights remain with the writer.

It is three days after Valentine… – February Short Story Call Out

It is three days after Valentine… Your story should not be less than 1200 words; not more than 1600 words long. Send in your work in a word document attachment to blogs@storymojaafrica.co.ke. Subject Title of your Submission Email Should Be: Three Days After Valentine. Deadline: March 9th 2015 Selected Stories will be published on 16th March 2015. The story selected for Editor’s Choice wins KES 1000/- Airtime. Read Blog Submission Guidelines. P.S. Check out these 8 heartwarming love stories published by Storymoja Drumbeats and written by Dilman Dila, Kiki Kalinga, Vaishnavi Rammohan & Hildah Gathanga. (http://goo.gl/00o44m)

Tinder Press Open Submission. 2-15 March

Tinder Press, an imprint of UK publisher, Headline Publishing will celebrate two years of publishing by opening submission to unagented manuscripts for two weeks in March. Tinder Press Publisher Mary-Anne Harrington explains the motivation: ‘At Tinder Press we are committed to finding the freshest literary voices, and the time seems right for us to reach out directly to authors at an early stage in their careers. This business is all about discovering new talent, so we’re hoping to be surprised and delighted, and that at the end of the day we’ll find an author we can go on to work with in the future.’ From 2nd to 15th March, the imprint will be open to accept fifty pages of a manuscript, an outline and an author biography from previously unpublished writers of fiction. Short stories will be considered, in addition to novels. Although only the first 50 pages are requested, these must be the beginning of a completed manuscript. Submissions are welcomed from writers worldwide, and must be written in English. Only literary fiction for adults is eligible, therefore scripts, YA fiction and poetry should not be submitted. Submissions will be read by the imprint’s editors. Full manuscripts may then be requested, and selected authors will have the opportunity to meet with one of the Tinder Press editors. Submissions will only be accepted electronically, and should be made via tinderpress.submissions@headline.co.uk For news of more opportunities from around the world, follow Commonwealth Writers on twitter (@cwwriters) and like us on Facebook.

Friday, February 13, 2015

BINYAVANGA AGAIN!!, “Boonoonoonoos little bit Boonoonoonoos”

________________________________________ It is Friday. Eunice and Milka, sixteen and fifteen, are form-three students at Lamdiak Secondary school—a series of long dark wooden buildings that sit deep in a thick plot of soft Kikuyu grass in front of the Mau forest, one of the coldest places to live in Kenya. It is five-thirty in the morning. There are already lines of girls washing in buckets at the end of their dorm. Form-four girls, cheeks burnt black with cold, have been up all night studying for exams. The air is cold and foggy and smells of cow shit and charcoal irons and foaming Imperial Leather soap. When Eunice and Milka walk outside the cold squeezes them immediately, like two women holding the ends of a wet blanket and squeezing. For a moment it is hard to breathe. The throat is seized. Then heat and air bursts out of them, they puff out warm air from their bellies—it licks their noses, their cheeks. They tiptoe slowly past the school security guard, a cantankerous old Gikuyu and Dorobo man, Josphat, who is paid thirty shillings by the school for each girl he catches sneaking out. Josphat is wearing a khaki overcoat from the 1950s. He is asleep, and so this is the best time to sneak out of school. Usually Josphat is up all night smoking bhang. During the day, he likes to sit outside the gate near the bus stop, sewing patches on his overcoat. The coat smells of old milk and old smoke. When he catches girls sneaking out, he is usually satisfied with asking them to let him touch their breasts and put a finger into their panties. The finger lasts a few seconds. Then he’ll frown and say, “moto sana.” That is his nickname, Moto Sana. Josphat was a tracker of Mau Maus in the 1950s, and talks of his days of glory as Sergeant Meeks’s right-hand man. He met Idi Amin twice, while they were hunting down Mau Mau. He sells very good bhang to students, and is popular for his stories—of tramping through the Aberdare forests, of elephants and the day Dedan was caught, of strange white men like Lord Egerton, whom he once worked for, and who would not allow any women onto the grounds of his castle, a few kilometers away. The girls start to breathe harder, and shuffle faster. Wet, frosted grass slurps and slaps against their heels. A boy streaks past them, coming from the Senior Girl’s dorm, buttoning his trousers and carrying books self-consciously. Maina. His jaw is working, like most miraa chewers. He smells like strangled cigarettes, Big G chewing gum, and stale plant juice. He is a school legend—he can drink a whole tin of changaa, can study all night for three nights in a row if he chews miraa. He winks at them, and Milka winks back back. Eunice looks at the grass and hides her eyes. They walk past the history teacher’s house. The girls can hear morning mood music on his general-service radio. Startling basses and the sound of old American railroads: NORTH! To Alaska! North to HUNT for GOLD. Mr. Simiyu is singing along. He likes to talk about his days studying in Manitoba. They giggle. Dark is unraveling quickly. They shuffle past the last guard post, past the little line of whitewashed stones, the large school sign, and into the small trading center on the main road to Mau Narok. Only a few miles from the roadless woods and wheat farms of Masailand, and the giant mountains of the Mau forest. They have known each other since they were in primary school in Njoro DEB, five or so kilometers away. They were in the same class for seven years, but did not once speak to each other until they found themselves in the same dorm on the first day of school at Lamdiak Secondary. Eunice is the shy one. Sharp bones at the top of her cheeks push her face forward. She has wide round eyes surrounded by what she calls her Rings of Satan, circles of darker skin that give her a feverish look. Milka is short, round, and hard, with round hard breasts, and a round yellow face. One of her front teeth is cracked, and has a small streak of brown. When she was nine, she cut off the legs of a school chicken and let it stumble and whirl like a dervish in the school playground, spraying gouts of blood. The headmaster, Mr. Gachohi, whipped her in front of the whole school with a long swaying stick cut from the tender new branch of a caterpillar tree. After three or four strokes aimed at her back and legs Milka took off running, twisting in between pupils and laughing. The prefects caught her before she got to the gate. She was brought back to the playground, held down, and whipped harder. ________________________________________ On the main road, three barefoot young men are unloading huge donkeyloads of giant carrots, brought in from guarded plots deep in the illegal regions of the Mau forest. Mountains of washed carrots steam by the side of the road, waiting for a morning lorry. Milka and Eunice walk past the carrots. The young men barely glance at them, even though they have lived deep in the forest for months. These two lorryloads of carrots are the result. Their hair is long and wild. When the madams of the Nakuru market have paid them in cash, tonight, that hair will be cut, and beer and new clothes will be bought, and they will dance all night in the Gituamba Day and Night Club in Nakuru. Boyi, all of ten years old and impervious to the cold, runs across the road in a torn T-shirt, bare feet, and navy-blue school shorts. He carries a red flask, two enamel cups, and ten chapatis wrapped in newspaper for the lorry men. He does this every day. They pay him to deliver tea and run errands and sleep in the back of the lorries, making sure no thieves sneak in and steal wheat. It is his plan, in a year or two, to be a turnboy—attached to a driver and adventuring all over the Rift Valley, wherever the lorry is called to work. He knows every lorry, every lorry driver, every license plate of every vehicle that passes by. He knows every car that took part in last year’s Safari Rally. He stops when he sees Eunice. “Sasa?” “Fit.” Eunice points to the three ringworms on his head. “You’re going to be rich.” Boyi laughs and hands them a chapati before he runs off. The chapati, as big as the head of a metal drum, is still hot. They tear it into two and chew. “Isn’t he—” “Josphat’s son? Yeah, I knew his mum. She had a kiosk in Ndarugu. They’ve got three acres in Ndeffo, but Josphat drank it all when she died.” “Call him back—maybe he can get us some.” “Some what?” “Some bhangi.” “Ai, Milka… With which money, now?” They sit and wait for the first matatu. To their left are three more lorries, laden with seed, parked in the small gulley of hard-packed earth between the road and the short line of shops. As soon as the dew is dry they will head into Masailand, followed by a tractor in case they get stuck in the mud. ________________________________________ That first day of boarding school, the first day they spoke to each other, a freezing Lamdiak night, three thousand meters above sea level, the senior boys came into the dorms to visit their “wives.” Eunice lay frozen in her bed, in the dark, as she heard the giggles, the protests, the moans, the springs. A hand of wind slapped a door against a wall somewhere in the distance. The forest leaned over them, then leaned back with the swelling, surround-sound chorus of crickets. A cassette player was playing Boney M.’s “Rivers of Babylon.” She turned and faced the wall. And then Eunice felt a hand on her shoulder. A hand lifted her blanket and a wet, hot tongue ran across her fingers. She almost laughed out loud when she heard the boy’s voice, forced down into his belly to sound deep, whispering, “Baby, you are my brown girl in the ring…” Then the hand grabbed at her crotch, and squeezed. She shot up and turned, rubbing the saliva off her fingers with her pillow. The boy’s eyes were frightened, and standing next to him was Milka. She grabbed his ear and twisted, laughing. “Kihii. Gasia. Come back when you’ve been circumcised.” He staggered back and ran. Milka climbed into the bed. She was singing the Boney M. song. Where she did not know the words, she made them up. “Kitanda wiskey, blabbin’ is the way of si si si… and how can we play the love song in a straaange land…” Eunice kept her body very still. She tried to keep solemn, but could not. Her chest started to shake with laughter. Milka’s wriggled and nestle in. Then she started talking. “George Oduor—you know that guy from Plant Breeding Station? Who does private tuition for CPE? He was telling me Ugandans are bringing red mercury here. People are making millions selling it to the Americans. It is for nuclear. Twenty thousand for one suitcase. It’s wet, and you can see it in the dark, shining bright red.” Milka’s cold hands slipped under her nightie and grabbed her breasts. Eunice gasped slowly. Her feet were very cold, and she reached them back to tangle with Milka’s. Soon they were warming each other up, and they slept. ________________________________________ Women in large sweaters and marked cheeks—some marked with black coldburn, others with three thin parallel cuts from an old past—are unpacking produce to sell. They haggle with their morning customers, mostly owners of the nearby rickety teashops and restaurants. A tractor driver and two Masai men spill out of one of the shops, talking loudly and laughing, and climb up on an old Massey Ferguson, the two Masais sitting on each ear above the giant wheels. Metal teapots sit by the side of the road, gushing on charcoal stoves next to giant crisp mandazis. The first matatus are fuming up the street, some coughing, touts bellowing and rubbing hands. Eunice and Milka stay hidden in the courtyard of a wholesale shop, drinking tea and waiting for the right time to make their way to Milka’s home. Waiting for her mum to leave to go to the market in Nakuru. ________________________________________ When she was thirteen, in standard seven, three month before sitting the certificate of Primary school exams Milka became famous in Njoro DEB Primary school because she moved out of home to live with Mungai as his girlfriend. He was seventeen, then, and famous in Njoro. Efantus Mungai Patel had smooth skin, soft Somali hair, and could do something with one eye that made him look like Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man. His father, a Masai from Ngong, was a Christian Religious Education teacher at Njoro Girls Secondary. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Patel Bao, whose father came to Njoro from Gujarat in the 1930s and started a sawmill. The original Patel Bao had a Bajuni wife, from Pate Island, but she fled to Kitale with a red-haired Scot called Rapeseed and their two daughters. After that Patel Bao famously paid forty goats to marry Sofia Kotut, the daughter of one of the first families of the Nandi nation to become a Christian. In those days there was no Kalenjin. There were Nandi, Kipsigis, Tugen and other small and large nations that spoke related languages. It was only after World War 2, during the violence of the emergency that they came together as Kalenjin, as the political elites of Kenya jostled to create political and ethnic alliances that gave them more power, in the last turbulent years of Colonial rule. Mama Sofia opened a supermarket in Nakuru before she inherited her father’s farm. It was on that farm three generations later, that Mungai was born. Mungai was famous even in Nakuru. He had his own pickup and a fleet of carrier pigeons and four hunting dogs, and he paid his own rent for a “cube” in Ndarugu. The cube was decorated with posters of Khadija Adams, Miss Kenya 1984, Pam Ewing of Dallas, and Bjorn Waldergard, the Safari Rally champion. In those days, Mungai was a golf caddy on weekends at the Njoro golf club, where he supplied college lecturers and senior management people with girls and bhangi. He’d dropped out of school in form three. His parents did not talk to him. One day, near the main matatu terminal to Nakuru, twelve-year-old Milka jabbed seventeen-year-old Mungai’s forearm with a blue Bic pen. He screamed while blood trailed down his arm. That evening, after school, he caught up with her at the Njoro river bridge, near the Plant Breeding station. He dragged her down to the patch of thick grass, where young men washed cars on Sundays. With one hand around her hair, he proceeded to beat her up while students cheered from the bridge above. Eunice stood and watched, thrilled. Everybody scattered when they saw two Administration policemen running down the road, rifles on their shoulders. ________________________________________ After that first Secondary School night together, Eunice and Milka became friends. Sometimes they would out of school. They would walk all the way to the gate of Egerton Agricultural College to use the phone booth. Call random numbers and breathe into the phone and start laughing. Once, a man picked up, barking “Nani,” in a deep, hard, cigarette-and-beer voice. Milka was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Mary Wanjiru.” Eunice tried to grab the phone, but Milka hung on. “What do you like, Mary?” His voice was slurry. “Napenda wewe.” His laughter growled. “He babe. Haunijui.” They kept talking, and talking, and soon, in self-defense, in the small voice of a girl, Milka turned to English. “No. I am mashure. I am very mashure.” He said something to her, and she laughed shyly. As they walked back to school, Eunice leaned to the side and bumped Milka on the shoulder. “Mm? Uliniuthi… what’s his name?” “Evans Ogutu. He is a soldier.” ________________________________________ Eunice and Milka walk up the road. They sing. And laugh. “Hot banana with the morning sun! Daylight come, me and Anna go home. Hey! Dibeday, dibeday dibe-daaaayo…” A Mau Narok matatu stops for them. Milka grabs the forearm of the tout and whispers something in his ear. He laughs and lets them on for free. And they enter the world of The Gambler, the driver in a stetson hat, Kenny Rogers knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run. They stop just before Njoro town and walk the two kilometers to Milka’s house. The main house is a simple wood cabin, built out of two layers of off-cut wood painted black, stuffed with cardboard and sealed from the cold with thick sheets of plastic. There are a few other scattered buildings—a pigsty, a milking shed, and a separate cabin for her three circumcised brothers. They walk, sliding on the muddy road. Peter Ole Matu, Milka’s father, sees them and smiles as he shoos his sheep into a paddock. He heads toward them jauntily, three dogs following him, a menthol cigarette in his mouth—from where they are, it looks like his whiskers are foaming. Milka’s mother is from a fierce Gikuyu squatter family back in Molo. She can hit a fleeing dog, a drunk husband, or a running child with whatever is near her with accuracy. Her grandmother, who died in 1970, was a Mau Mau enforcer. Two days after independence, in 1963, she flayed a young sub-Chief in front of everybody, flayed him with a whip on a patch of ground near the Molo junction. Eunice gets along well with Milka’s mother. She fusses over Eunice, and knits for her. Eunice is the first friend Milka has brought home—the first female friend she has had. Eunice does not know this. She often spends the night at Milka’s; they sleep in the same bed. She cooks with Mama Milka sometimes, while Milka steams and sulks and spends the night in her brother’s room listening to reggae and smoking. Peter is smiling. “Hey girls? Ah? You missed your mother. She left an hour ago…” He winks. They laugh. He has clear, yellow-brown eyes, common among some Kalenjins. He is medium height, with a lean, whippy body and a large moustache, already graying and yellow at its tips from tobacco. He has a big gap between his front teeth, which lends some warmth to his smile. His hands are as flat and dry as old chapatis. “Sasa, Eunice? What has my daughter been planning for you?” “Nothing.” Her chin points down, and left, and her foot starts to draw pictures. She still cannot understand how or why Milka’s father is so nice. “We… we… came to get money for School Activity Fund,” Milka says. His eyes crinkle, and turn to Milka. “Ai. More money? What is this activity fund?” Milka shrugs. The day Milka got whipped in front of the school, her father paid the school a visit and beat up the headmaster, who fled to the chief’s office. As a boy Peter Ole Matu wandered into a Masai boma in Tipis one night, crying and wearing a torn blue shirt and nothing else. He had a faded red toy car in his pocket,. He was not yet five years old. He spoke Kipsigis, which made him Kalenjin. They assumed him to be a victim of one of the Masai–Kipsigis clashes in the forest. The family adopted him. His adoptive father, a land-and-cattle wealthy man, a prominent elder, sent him and a sickly stepsister to school. The old man had some contempt for the ways of the white man, and did not enroll his own children in colonial schools. They had something to inherit, after all. Peter eventually got a diploma in Agriculture from Egerton College the same year as Eunice’s father. He worked for the Artificial Insemination Department of the Ministry of Agriculture for ten years before quitting to farm and plan a career in local politics, with his stepfather as a sponsor. He is going to run for councilor in 1982. They stay indoors, where it is dark and smoky and comfortable, and drink milky tea that Milka’s father makes for them. They eat thick chunks of bread with Blue Band. “Ha,” he says, “I know how you students like loaf! I used to eat a whole one alone when school closed. Slowly, chewing each bite slowly. But we did not have Blue Band—sometimes I would put sour cream on it.” He puts on the radio for the 8 a.m. news. They listen in silence. Immediately after the news, Milka looks straight at her father. “Dad. I need the money. They sent us home to get it. They said you did not respond to their letter.” He looks at Eunice, sheepishly. “Huyu ni mangaa sana,” he says.Then he stands, disappears into his room, and comes back with a sheaf of notes. “I have given you some extra, for loaf and Blue Band and a soda before you both go back to school. And you go straight back, eh? Girls get pregnant from just wind blowing in this place, you know.” “You don’t think he will tell your mum?” They are walking fast, back to the main road. Milka laughs. “Oh, no. Mathe is like a ninja with money. He will never say anything.” Peter watches Milka walk away. He sits and puts on his gumboots and a thick sweater as shrapnels of thoughtlets tiptoe behind his sinuses. He kicks the back of the boots firmly against the table leg, stands, and walks outside. He decides not to worry. He can remember his mother firmly. A ring of harsh pink flowers on a pale blue enamel cup, wet flesh slaps his forehead, a little node of memory bursts, milk streams, and he is dozing gently in and out of oblivion, inside a bus, a bright bright green sweater scratches him, a faint grey road pulls away. One day, after college, he was posted for a few months in Kipkelion. He was standing next to the back of a thin grade cow, two small legs were poking out of its back, and he was ready to help pull the calf out. An old thin man, the milker, stood behind him with a bucket of hot water and a blade of grass in his mouth, some missing teeth. The man had put the bucket down when the cow started to kick and wail. He rubbed the neck of the cow, first whistling from the side of his mouth, then singing softly, something in Kalenjin, to the cow in pain. Just then, spurts and sprays flooded Peter’s mind, tributaries of his first language, and Peter started to sing the same song. His Kalenjin has grown. He even made a short speech without notes, in Kipsigis, at a farmer’s retreat a few years ago. Whenever Milka looks at him, from those hard round eyes, he is weak. It has always been that way. He does not know why. Nobody else feels so essential. ________________________________________ They walk to the railway lines and pay five shillings each for a hot comb, done by one of the freelance railway women who plait and comb on a patch of grass between two straight lines of old stone Railways housing. Then they change their clothes behind a forgotten train carriage and take a matatu to Nakuru. They had agreed to meet him at 7 p.m., at Tipsy restaurant. It is bright with fluorescent light and smells of India. They order. They do not talk when the food arrives. They shovel in the masala chips, the sausages, the Cokes. Both wearing new midi dresses, matching earrings, their hair oiled and hot-combed, rollered and fluffed up. Milka has cut her eyebrows and drawn a new line to replace them. They both have lipstick on. Every few minutes Eunice looks at her friend, lifts her eyebrow, and says, “Eh?”—then watches Milka’s new thin, high semicircles respond involuntarily. It makes Eunice burst out laughing. Two men dressed like Abroad sit at the table next to them. One an Indian, one probably a Luo. Yes—he is called Washington. They both have Afros, and open shirts, and fat, high shoes and wide-bottomed jeans. They have stretched themselves out slouchily, their legs sprawled and comfortable. Eunice and Milka fidget next to them, suddenly stiff and shy. Washington sits back and speaks in London television hiccups. “So tha( )’s the story. Take it or leave it, brover. And I have somefink else for you. Read i( ) la( )er.” The girls burst out laughing. Washington is quiet for a moment and Milka turns and glares at him. He stands, walks toward the table, brushes past them, smelling good, and lopes towards the urinal without looking at the girls. When he walks back, he wrinkles his nose at them. Immediately, Eunice can smell paraffin, cheap soap, polyester, and small towns in her clothes. Evans walks in a few minutes before six. ________________________________________ He drives a brown Citroën, that droops back like a tortoise. It is parked next an old stone wall. The back of Rift Valley Sports club. Members Only. They both sit at the back while Evans argues and jokes with the street kids who are trying to wash the car. The inside of the car smells of hot nylon, the seats are a yellow orange velvet and so deep and so soft it is hard to find a way to sit. Milka came to Rift Valley Sports Club once, with Ndirangu who was already drunk. He disappeared into the Men’s Bar and left her on the patio watching a battalion of white men playing cricket. Next to her two oldish women dressed in flowery white farmer’s dresses sat reading newspapers and drinking tea. She was so afraid, she wet her panties. When the waiter stood next to her in his white uniform, and gave her a menu and a receipt book, she shook her head, stood and walked out, she was crying when she got to Ogilgei matatu stop. The next day, she stabbed Ndirangu, and walked home. Milka tries to sit up straight, but that makes her feel too schoolgirlish, so she leans back, lets her body falls into the nauseous cloud of soft Citroen sponge, and turns to look at Eunice, who is sitting up and straight and still and looking out of the window, her ringed eyes never say anything, big brown pupils sit close to the roof of her eyelids, like a half moon, they never seem to move much. When Eunice turns to face her, eyes cool, Milka is suddenly shy. “ Let me tell you of a feeling…that is spreading through the land….” Eunice giggles, and they both sing, “ It will give you good vibrations. It will help you understand. Boononoonoos, that’s boonononoos.” They are quiet for a second as they gaze out of the window. That bubble-popping sounds of night have began, some men and boys are gathered around Mombasa Stores, all in white-ironed kanzus, ready to go to the mosque. Sometimes Milka looks at Eunice’s mouth and it seems like the bottom lip and the top lip are one, like they can stay closed forever. Eunice follows Milka everywhere, sings the songs Milka suggests. She rarely introduces her own ideas. They have great timing for each other – sometimes Milka notices something silly and looks across and Eunice is already rising to a giggle. This happened from the beginning, without rehearsal or preparation. But – if Eunice does not like something she simply stills – she does not fidget, does not say no, does not say yes her eyes do not flutter or look for approval – it is as if she has a shiny tingling world of night inside of her where she can stay until you call her back. Over the past two weeks, both of them have taken turns talking to Evans on the telephone. When he sat next to them this evening, he looked at them both fully, eyes warm and teasing, “So who is who?” “That is for you to find out,” said Milka. They had decided that he would pick the one he wanted. Black and white crows are circling, soon hundreds of them will all gather on the dead eucalyptus tree just next to Eros cinema which has small studs of light all over its high ceilings, like stars. They can see the disco-lights of Gituamba Day and Night Club start to twinkle. From where she is sitting, Milka can see the swell of his belly button – ha! – that one was not born in a hospital she thinks, he has a tight red t-shirt with faces from the characters of hey hey heeey, it’s Faaaat Albert. His arms are big and veiny and he flaps them around a lot when he talks. He takes the little jar of glue from the streetkid, and knocks the kid hard on the head with a knuckled fist, then thrusts a note into the kids pocket and the kid is laughing as he walks around the car, his finger wagging, she can’t see his face. It is dark and wall of screaming night crickets surrounds them, like a waterfall of sequins. Bononoonoos, she thinks, little bit boonoonoonoos. He does not come to her side of the car. He pulls Eunice’s door open, and asks her to sit in front. He takes her hand. Eunice’s face is still, she doesn’t turn back to face Milka. His face leans in and looms at Milka, smile wide, his scratchy voice like short-wave, “Back left is for VIPs.” The Citroen starts and rises and swells slowly on its hydraulics, Sundowner, on the radio, splutters on, jus’ tha thaught of yeew, trrns my whole wrrld misty bluu; and Milka finds that if she hums along, she can keep her disco tingle alive. ________________________________________ They are at the party. In Section 58. A smart, small house, next to a long row of smart-looking identical houses. There are other women here—older woman, with Afro wigs or raffia plaits, and a lot of makeup. Laughing and dancing. Eunice has managed to finish the bottle of Kingfisher cider she asked for. Milka is quiet, and looking down into her glass of Cinzano Bianco. They both have a picture, in their heads, of a woman in a long, sequined dress, sitting in a piano bar lit by the lights of skyscraper teeth. She has a fluted glass in front of her, and a cigarette with a filter. Underneath her it reads, Cinzano bianco! “How is it?” Eunice asks. Milka looks at her, and they giggle. They are sitting on a half-sawn-off log. There are seven or eight other logs like this. On the wall are two giant framed parallelograms made out of colored strings and small nails. By the large window facing the veranda there is a large silver music system, several layers mounted on top of each other. Evans and his army friends are standing at the door to the kitchen, laughing loudly and talking. Faces slick and gleaming with excitement. He is very tall, muscular—and light-skinned, which was a surprise. All the men have uncomfortably short hair, and they are all fit. Their clothes, even now, are ironed and tucked in. Evans’s jeans have been ironed, and the line shows. He has changed. His pink and green shirt is unbuttoned, and he wears a gold chain. He has hair on his chest, another surprise, and large, very dark lips, charcoal and ashy like a heavy smoker’s. Bhangi-lips, whispered Milka, eyes shining, when he had gone to piss at Tipsy. Eunice had watched him stride past Washington’s table, had seen Washington’s eyes try, then fail to meet Evans. Evans didn’t even notice him. Eunice kicked Milka’s ankle under the table. Milka turned and caught Washington’s eyes, and winked. “Come on— tuwa-join.” Milka grabs Eunice’s hand. She stands up, and they make their way to the kitchen. But there, the other women are laughing laughing, everybody seems to know each other. Evans winks at them, then continues talking to his friends. The stand around for a while, then walk back to the living room. ________________________________________ Later, they are standing outside with the men, smoking a seed-ridden joint, as the men light a fire for the meat. Faces in and out; Evans’s teeth, as he laughs up and loud. Milka is jabbing at her waist with three hard fingers. “Wewe. Ah. Pslp. We acha,” she whispers hotly. She moves a little away from Eunice and tries to compose herself, bending down and covering her head with her arms tight, eyes shut tight; inside she is burning silver and rust. Evans is beating a piece of firewood with an axe. She can hear the saliva sluicing back, over, and then under his tongue as he pulls; then a hiccup as he reaches the back of his throat; and then a cough, as he lurches forward suddenly and breaks into laughter. Meat falls onto the flame and starts to smell immediately, and a laughing group of people make their way to the fire. Then his arms are around her waist, and a warm, wet snail moans between the cables of her neck. She is looking at the tips of the inner tubes of his nose above her; they are glowing, red and wounded. She moves her water-heavy head from side to side, thick sheets of starlight rolling quickly all across the sky, then settle back into small, mean glares. Where is Eunice? She pushes him away, and bursts into the living room. ________________________________________ Shadowed and cold, she stands by the door. A blurred man mumbles something and takes her hand. President Moi mouths something on the television screen, and she wants to salute. She tries to move, and stumbles, and hears her breath slap hotly against her cleavage. She stands and leans back against the wall. She hears Eunice laughing, standing with two tall men by the silver stereo. Her words cartwheel across the room and spin back and settle thickly under her tongue. “Papapa papapapapapaaaa. Papapapaaaa.” Milka’s legs jolt forward. She grabs Eunice’s hand. They have danced to this song so many times in the dorm. As if she has left herself, Milka can see her limbs lurch to the center of the living room, her skirt bursting with color and soft wind between her legs as they circle each other. Little bowls of living-room light are spinning gently around her as she turns, arms around Eunice’s waist. She can name each of her organs, which sit spinning inside her like hot rocks peeping out of a creamy pool that reaches out to lap and lick. The trumpets slow down. Flared skirt-sounds ripple, then fold, and then stand still. They both stop. Milka leans forward and says into Eunice’s ear, “Umelewa, baby.” They jump to the side and face the guys and the older women standing at the stereo. They bend up and down. Strumpets in military formation, leaning down, bending up, leaning down, fingers pretending to play the trumpet as they bend and rise. Then, Eunice’s face is right there, her eyes burning. Eunice’s nails are cutting into her wrist. Tears streaming. Eunice’s mouth is screaming in her ear. “Are you? Are you my girlfriend?” Something clutters and Milka is on the ground, her leg tangled with a fallen chair. Glass screams, and beer foams and hisses on the floor and snakes its way around a heap of fallen goat ribs. There is silence, and she can hear Evans outside say, “What?” Then they are running down the straight low road into Nakuru Town proper. The men follow, shouting, Hey, hey, but eventually they turn back to their party. The girls stop, and pant. The night is bright, the moon is fat, and they walk and talk all the twenty kilometers back to Njoro.