By: Kelvin J. Shachile
To proceed towards the west, the escarpments looking like the end where the sky meets the earth. The silence of a world you’d guess Jesus visits everyday but sinners still roam around free like prisons are full or maybe the government can’t afford to feed them anymore. Until a boy loves then his soul is shamefully pushed into a cage-he is thinking. A soft move in bush interrupts but Mmbasu’s eyes see emptiness. He knows he’s not a coward but lately his heart and mind have become friends so his head doesn’t think straight. He looks again and this time he notices a stranded snake waiting to meet his eyes, then he drops and his breath stops. He wakes up sweating.
A snake in his dream, again. He didn’t do it before sleeping, his body was aching.
He presses next on the stereo, the Ohangla song goes and Sauti Sol’s voices fill the room when Nelima visits his apartment at Robert Ouko Estates. She wants to say sorry about what happened the previous night. Unlike other family members who have been coming here to talk about his father’s affair with the fair town woman, Nelima talks about yesterday. Words slip out of her as if her mouth has no teeth. Then lastly she murmurs a sorry. “Pole, he should have just talked.” She says then realizes she has no audience.
“Ndugu yangu. It’s our father I am talking about.” She says and he feels the air in the living room tense and the lights hanging from the ceiling start burning his eyes, anger beating in his chest until his throat begins to hurt and he closes his eyes wanting to see darkness even as much as he is afraid of the snakes he sees in it.
“Are you even listening?” She asks bringing him back from his thoughts of nonexistence and he stuns at the brilliance that emanates from his sister’s everything, the deputy County Attorney. Memories of her protection since childhood and the pain rush in his head. How she forgot he needed it now more than then and wonders how all these things just go because people grow. Since they argued after their grandfather’s funeral, they had never met, they had never even talked on phone and there were no apologies from any side. None of them had felt like being wrong, especially Nelima, she was the eldest and age in her demanded to be heard by her young brother. It was their mother who had told him that Nelima was upset that his father had hit him again. “She said she will see you tomorrow, mapema sana-very early. Did you hear?” she asked before she said her goodnights.
“Let the old man be.” He muffled the words out of him and stood up from the sofa.
It was time for her to leave, even though she hadn’t even stayed long, she had to leave. Mmbasu had offered her nothing. He hadn’t even asked her what she would have liked to have. She would have said nothing, but she wished he had at least asked. She had wanted him to ask her again why she insisted him to be patient with their father, she wanted him to be either angry or something.
She hated the nothingness from her brother, even though it is what she felt within her too.
My family happens in my thoughts in the moments when I think about bad luck. I don’t hate it; I don’t love it sometime. Nothingness is my feeling for it. For the countless times mama calls to give updates from the women. “They saw him today at the general store buying house things. He brought nothing home today.” She says through the phone, her voice sounding like sobs waiting to erupt. She has known her husband, our father for years now. She acknowledges that he has never raised his hand to slap her but every time papa pushed his finger into Mmbasu’s head mama cried hard.
Papa calls me with pride, he says his good mornings that sound like congratulations and his goodnight enter my head as if they are his last words on earth. His voice tired and words so few and soft. Morning gets him anyway and I find it even harder trying to find the right feelings for him.
My phone rings and I am afraid to pick it. Mama calling.
When her voice cracks on my ears, I rush to lock my office’s door. She starts with laughter then as if she had something more to say, she adds “and before I forget, did you see your brother?” I listen to her breathing into the landline and I stand at the window looking five floors down at the busy Main Avenue Streets, at the life in the hot sun and the smell of the lake in the air. I sigh.
“He was getting late for work. I only spoke about how I am disappointed that papa hasn’t stopped beating him.” I say hoping the word papa will remind her of her anger and it does, the sobs begin and she is blaming him again. Thanks to the heavens, I might finish today without giving another excuse.
I feel bad about it though, the knowledge that he will still do it again because we can do nothing.
I always thought I could do nothing. But now the only thing I feel like doing is saying my father’s name.
The first person he meets when he arrives at work is Sophia, his immediate supervisor. She smiles at his greetings and looks into his eyes as if he is searching for something in them. She finds it. “He came in early today, maybe he is afraid of your eyes” She says with a friendly smile. They are not friends, just workmates. She is his senior but her words that morning are like those of a friend.
“What are you talking about?” he asks forcing his face to return the smile.
“You know what I mean. Koome.” She responds as she lifts the mug from the desk towards her mouth.
“Yes. What is it about him that is in your mind?”
“Nothing other than the knowledge of his existence here. Why do you ask?” he responds and walks towards his desk and starts to pull the drawers all in wanting to avoid her eyes. He feels them on his back and his mind seeks divorce from the heart.
It is time to think.
“He asked for a day-off. He has an interview. He might be leaving the bank if it goes well with him today.”
He heard her well but he stayed there as if he hadn’t. The words went through him like water through a sieve, not finding the solidness to make them stay. He faked a cough and sat down behind his desk. Sophia finished with her coffee left the mug at the common place and walked towards her cubicle.
People hold onto their truth until they find the right people to tell. Mmbasu did that, he broke so perfectly that it was so hard to tell. He took care of his face like model and every time he looked perfect, marks of pain would be seen before evening came. His body was aching but he held it up with dignity. Until the day I felt it was enough. I asked him and he said he had been bullied by friends, I spoke sense it him but it happened again and this time he came to work looking tired. His eyes raw with pain but his smile undisturbed.
About it, it began after the bank had closed and people were starting to leave their offices when I heard some staff laughing in the corridor close to my cubicle. They were not having the normal Manchester united and Chelsea football argument because when I walked to see, Mmbasu was amongst them. He is never part of any sports argument. Before he noticed my presence, he said his last sentence. “Death is not as hard as you people think. In fact, it is something we should look forward to with the same eagerness as when we think about life.” Then his eyes met mine, he picked his bag and left.
He stopped talking about death the day Koome started his internship at the bank and he avoided office talks, all he did was let his eyes rest on the intern when he stood up to walk to the printer, desire shinning like light from them and turned them back to his work when Koome sat back at his desk.
There is never a time you will see both of them standing, it’s like they are afraid of each other. As a woman who fights the thoughts wanting to divorce my lovely husband to save him from the hurt he will suffer the day he finds out about my affair with Lucia, I know how forbidden love begins.
I bought a pendant with the colors of a rainbow, I let it hang out visible every time I meet him. I left it as a welcome door to a house he should knock and enter, and make a home.
The night comes and darkness engulf the evening, his hand goes over the mouth and slips into his shorts. He strokes his whole into a series of shivers, his body vibrates into a sudden calmness. He doesn’t wait for judgement to find drops of shame on his chest. Guilt carries him to the bathroom and he wipes. He returns to his bed and sleep finds him thinking. On such nights, a snake doesn’t appear. He doesn’t even dream. He sleeps and wakes up to the promise of it stopping and the day has to happen.
“Good Morning sir.” Koome greets him at the door. He drops his car keys and bends down to pick them. When he straightens to answer him, he is gone. He finds him at his desk, he is opening his bag, lifting his laptop from it, then a water bottle. His thoughts say something like sorry but he realizes it didn’t come out when Koome doesn’t turn to look at him. He hates mornings like this one.
The day Mmbasu said he didn’t like me, I was standing behind him waiting get some coffee at the offices’ common place. He hadn’t noticed my presence and he went ahead to explain to Ms. Sophia that he never liked me for not answering his greetings on the day I started my internship. I wanted to remind him that I had returned his greetings but he didn’t stand to hear me. He said hello and hurriedly took the stairs towards the Branch manager’s office. “Excuse me, can I get some coffee?” I said and he moved.
I heard him say he didn’t care if I had heard him or not. That I would do nothing. He was right. I couldn’t do anything for someone I was willing to hate, but his eyes held my anger at a standstill, dancing around with it as it went towards the bin and dropped it there. I searched for them for the few minutes they weren’t on me but it felt like trying to find something that had already swallowed me. I couldn’t see them while I was inside them.
It was his sister Nelima, that came at the bank to see him one Friday afternoon and after they had talked. He walked her out of the office. His face like a napkin being strained. He didn’t look like his actions and Madam Sophia asked me to tell him she wanted to see him in her cubicle.
“Okay, I will see her.” He responded. The first time that we had a full conversation, one person saying and another one responding. It’s that afternoon that their friendship began and Ms. Sophia brought his sister to my apartment. His sister said I am the kind of shame she was willing to endure. I didn’t even tell her I was what she thought. But I knew how much she needed her brother to settle. To find peace before the kind of ugliness that she had heard about happened to him-her words.
The day he came out to Sophia, two men had been found having sex in a hotel room in town. The hotel woman had given them up and as the crowd walked them naked around town, He stood outside his car in shock. Dust danced above the city-clock at the junction and the entire town had gone silent except for the howls from the shame-parade. One of the men, a tall tired man used both his hands to cover his manhood and the one that looked younger covered his face. The crowd had forced them unto a mkokoteni that was being pulled by a young man with a white but now browning vest and torn cargo pants. The crowd followed behind throwing words and women spitting on the men. “Mzee huyu.”-This old man, a woman shouted. “Too dark, ugly and poor to be gay.” Another one added and the crowd burst into a roaring laughter. “Leave these sins for people with money jamani.” A man yapped throwing his hand to slap the men and three more people joined in the slapping.
Mmbasu stood there until the shame-parade proceeded towards the Central Roundabout then turned towards the Police-Line Avenue. He knew where they were heading to. They were taking those men to the police. He appreciated that at least life will be left within them even though jail was where fourteen years of it would happen.
He later called Sophia and told her he had noticed her rainbow pendant and that he wanted to know if she was part of the community.
“I thought you will never notice.” Her voice filled his ears. “Have you heard about the men who were caught today?”
“I witnessed the shame-parade.” He responded.
The next morning, he told her that she had been right about Koome. “But I fear for his dignity. I can take shame for myself but I don’t want it for someone who still has an entire desire for dignity within him.”
“Dignity is for everyone. Everybody wants it.” Sophia answered. “Did you hear it was one of the man’s sister who paid the hotel woman to set them up?”
“Why would she want such a thing for her brother?”
“She hated the other man so much. The problem was his brother loving a man she hates.”
After Nelima called me to tell me how much she felt so ashamed that papa had been beaten while in town seeing his mistress, I asked her what she felt of the woman. She said hate and I wondered if she had been the one that set papa up. I knew she couldn’t do such a thing.
“And how much do you hate me?” I asked at last.
“I love you brother.” She answered right back. She didn’t even think but my heart was not convinced to settle down.
“What don’t you like about me?”
“I don’t know what you want to hear from me. Just be something that will be hard for me to hate.” She laughed after she said this. “Just want something that even when it might be a mistake. It will a mistake we will be proud of. Just don’t hurt your family with ugly shame.” She added.
“I think I am falling in love with a boy.” That came out of me without thinking. I tried to pull it back but the words were to slippery. She sighed into my ears.
“Mama thought you are but she asked me to keep asking you to man-up.”
“But I am a man.”
“Not in the eyes of our father.” Her words dropped like an old sack full of wool, a soft thud then silence. “He vowed to find himself a son. That is the excuse he gave when mama confronted him.”
There were thousand thoughts in my head after the call, a string of mistakes that I thought I was especially to Mama. I called her and apologized even though I didn’t say why. I was sorry if I had caused her any pain. She said fine and asked me to do her a favor. To remember the wishes I had as a little boy. I remembered them well, that I wished her joy and good life. I wished that the day the boys pulled me out of my shorts to confirm if I was a girl would never exist. The way they touched me then the three of them took turns to push themselves into me laughing. The pain was too much, I told Nelima about it but she said I shouldn’t tell our parents or the teachers, because the boys had told her they had seen me lick my desk mate John and I would be punished if anyone knew.
Nelima called back again and made me promise not to tell mama about my loving a boy. She called it my thing and pointed out clearly that I should greet the boy that she had seen come to my table after I had felt her to sign out at the door when she visited my office. His name is Koome, I told her and she said he was beautiful and I knew we were done.
I asked Sophia for Koome’s number but when I talked, he said I should wait. He did come to me the evening after papa came to my house and asked the boys he was with to smash the woman out of me. The boys declined, one of them had seen me at the bank.
“This man is a big man.” He said to his friend. “I don’t want to rot inside.” He added before they left without another word. He hit me, himself, with his hands.
An evening moment, Koome knocks on the door before he walks in without him having to stand from the sofa to open the door for him. Nelima stands to greet him and leaves after she asks about his internship at the bank. Mmbasu walks her to the door and waits for the sound of her car to die before he holds his wrist tightly, he bends into his arms and he can’t do anything other than hug him back. He whispers a sorry. He raises his hand to his chest and gently pushes him away.
“What happened?” he asks.
He drops into the sofa but Koome remains standing. He doesn’t know the first words to say until his eyes start to shine in the brightness of the golden lights. “He came here and slapped me again. He even punched me.” He sobs his hands brushing over the visible bruises on his face.
“What did she say”
“She is afraid that if we report him of abuse he will out me.”
Knowing that there was nothing he could do, he reaches for his hand before he proceeds to softly fall into the sofa beside him, he passes his hand over his back and his head rests on his chest. He feels his freshly cut hair like tiny needles on his chest but this is not pain. “You can have me now.” Koome whispers.
He knows this isn’t the end but he resigns into the flow, the river-ness of pain and pleasure happening within the same course.
Kelvin J. Shachile is a Kenyan writer. The co-author of Hell in the Backyard and Other stories (Queenex 2019) and author of The Game of Writing (AWDT 2019). His works have appeared in The Country of Broken Boys anthology, The Armageddon and other stories anthology, The Best New African Poets 2018 Anthology, Agbowo’, Writers Space Africa and elsewhere. In 2019 he was longlisted for the African Writers Awards and Shortlisted for the inaugural Wakini Kuria Award for African Literature. He lives in Kisumu City, Kenya.