Vanilla looks like a one-toothed tokoloshe. Koki knows this because it slips out of her dreams from behind her eyelids and into the recycled air tainted with, among other things, the remnants of would-you-like-chicken-or-vegetarian-miss? It curls upwards, tugging at the hairs in her nose, blocking her ears, prying her eyes open, sinking its single canine into her right cheek. Always vegetarian, because the first time she met Aviwe – the only person she knew who would sing an opera to help her insert a tampon – she told Koki the entire university delegation, herself included, had shit their pants for the entirety of their entire time in Beijing because of the chicken they had eaten on the way there. Koki had watched her neck muscles tauten with expression, laughed at the particularly gross bits, and then they had fed off each other’s company after that.
The pilot’s voice barges into the space before full wakefulness, where Koki’s more familiar friends like to talk about her ingrown dream-cells. In English then Swahili, she says something banal about Kilimanjaro. On the small screen above the aisle, the plane’s nose is in Nairobi, its tail in Lilongwe. Outside, the mountain appears in the faint light of sunrise. With her eyes, Koki traces a line where she imagines the border is. As if well practiced from a lifetime of misjudgments, the mountain turns its irritated gaze in her direction, stands up and takes a very deliberate step several hundred metres further rightwards. Sorry, I’m projecting she thinks, and looks away.
They are asking me about you as if I still know you. Anu’s e-mail had whispered. Come home, if only to put your grief in the same place they have put theirs. You know you do not have to stay.
Koki had been tempted to ask her if the neighbour’s son, with his polite, Christian-boy crush, still lives next door; Chandler or Dwight or some name you would not expect a little black boy to have and the loveliest singing voice you would not expect anybody to have on a Monday morning. Anu used to sing Aaliyah songs over his lyrics to prove some point or another. But Koki does not know if she knows her sister anymore either, so she does not know if Anu will find it funny. While Anu and Chandler/Dwight sang, Koki used to sleep until her mother could not stand the sound of her morning-snoring, which was distinctly different from her night-time snoring, louder, erratic. The grown-up word for it is laziness but Ma’s grown-up-ness is a recurring debate, or is it still?
His five-month old e-mail repeats itself in different voices over and over again for the five months it sits in her inbox: I just had the best burger of my life, except now it might be the best only because I’m dying I’m dying I’m dying, I miss you, I love you I love you. How is that shit anthropology class going? I love you, we all do. I’m still here. I cannot wait to see you. The message’s body contorts itself to show her the words he backspaced: I think about a red woman with red knitting needles, forever tapping her small red foot.
Next to Koki, a bearded man with the pinkest tongue in the world blinks several times in his sleep. On his tiny table, and on Koki’s, there are several failed games of hangman—she does not understand seSotho and he tells her in English that he does not care enough for English. On his other side, his daughter had watched them play, laughing until she cried. Koki focuses on his twitching face, determined to recreate a list of like-my-father-things that will be demanded of her when she arrives. His blackheads sit in tiny clusters like her father’s, though this man’s are only under his eyes and disappear into the folds of his face when he smiles at her. He eats dessert first– red velvet cake – like her father would. He takes over both chair-arms, like her father would. He would say his m’s like her father would and and and, many things like her father would. But unlike her father, at the corner of his mouth, a tiny pool of saliva is kept in place by a deep pocket of skin, filling up with each exhalation and near-emptying when he breathes in. Baba hates spit. He used to smack her and Anu for rubbing the mistakes in their exercise books with it, declaring that his single mother did not work fourteen-hour days in the healthy laps of despotism to feed six children for him not to afford rubbers.
That is how he would say it: “lap of despotism”, Koki tells Aviwe the first time they get high together. This salivary man is almost nothing like her father. Erasers, Aviwe corrects her: Rubbers are condoms.
The salivary man smiles at something tickling the right spot in his brain. His daughter tells Koki this is the first time he has left South Africa, or even Gauteng. They are on their way to India to take away the cancer in his right breast. His lined skin is the same colour as nothing, nothing, stop trying to put so many lives inside him. He really is almost like Baba, but that goddamn drool. He is not like Baba.
When Koki gets back to her flat from an exam on Descartes’ Meditations, she finds Aviwe naked and asleep in her bed. The room smells faintly of her even when they are angry at each other and do not see each other for a couple of weeks, perhaps because Koki does not open the windows anymore because she grew tired of the birds that liked to fly in and perch themselves on her chemistry notes. [Now they throw themselves against the glass in protest before flying away, disgruntled.]
Anu’s e-mail has been winking shyly on Koki’s phone since 2.31 p.m., a minute into her exam. We found him ten minutes ago, it says, and some other things that could have been words or bats or font size 14 strands of hair. 3.31 p.m. in Nairobi. Whenever he picked them up from school, he used to count exactly a hundred and fifty seconds backwards after the final school bell rang each day but they never found out what would happen if they were late because they never dared to be late. Time slips by easier than an unfaithful husband caught in his own lies, his single mother used to say, he once told them, but they knew she never did, and that he was just avoiding Anu’s teachers, who always wanted to tell him about the things she did to hamper her wonderful potential. This was after the first time.
Baba Anu, your daughter could do much better if she settled down. Always talking, always writing the wrong things, always playing with that hair that is too long for her own good, in my respectful opinion. A girl like that could be a great doctor or engineer if she only applied herself.
Nikijipaka, Anu whispered in reply from the back seat loud enough for Mrs. Boit to hear and Baba laughed long enough for her to turn a purplish shade of red on the inside of her flared nostrils. He bought them the nice ice cream on the way home. Koki picked out the hazelnuts in her otherwise perfect chocolate and gave them to Anu in exchange for three extra spoons of her blueberry-vanilla swirl.
Now, looking down at the small pile of papers decorated with stick-men, nooses and meticulous (his) and haphazard (hers) letters, Koki remembers Baba keeps, kept, a small file of notes confiscated by Anu’s teachers. They are dated, and half of them are in Pig Latin. Koki smiles at Ma’s dated theory that of all the things Anu has done to date, those notes made him the proudest. Did I feel a pinprick of loss, or a small shift into absence as I stood outside the exam hall, clutching four blue Bic biros, waiting to be let in? I might have, but I’m also lactose intolerant and I had a cheeseburger for breakfast, and sometimes I really cannot tell the difference between these things?
The bearded man’s first round, with one of the same blue Bic biros, was Hamba No Malume. Koki was hanged, even though it is one of her favourite songs. He died, too, when he could not fill in The Joys of Motherhood. His last round, before would-you-like-chicken-or-vegetarian-sir? had been Takalani Sesame. Koki died, but barely. It does not occur to her until several days later that there was some irony in that scene, and she wonders if it would have been appropriate to draw Baba’s face on any of the dead men’s heads. Anu thinks it would have been but Anu has always been more than a little bit weird.
The seatbelt sign pings on and the pilot informs them, in Swahili and English, that they are preparing to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Karibu Kenya. We hope you have a pleasant stay.
The ghosts of hopscotch numbers hover just above the stone paving outside the house. After the taxi driver charges her 200 bob more than he had initially promised (Ai, you didn’t tell me this place is ndani-ndani like this imagine), she walks around the house twice. She chants a children’s play song under her breath to test her voice. She destroys a tiny anthill and then, horrified, tries to rebuild it so the ants can maintain a façade of okayness. If she were here at this moment, Anu would tell her to stop because you’ve ruined the little ant corridors anyway and how can you fix that if you’re not an ant? Then she reminds herself that Anu is here, up the stairs, probably still asleep. Koki cleans some sticky grime out from behind her ears and walks into the house at 6.54 a.m. to hear her aunties and cũcũ already busy with a large sufuria of tea and hotpots full of pancakes and sausages. The heavy smell of masala fights with Aviwe’s scent, telling it to let go because it has no place here. Aviwe’s scent does not fight back and it does not budge; instead, it examines the painting of Wangû wa Makeri on the wall. Koki is not sure if this exchange makes her itchy for a joint.
I thought you were coming with me to Pietermaritzburg, Aviwe protested sleepily when she saw Koki packing a suitcase too big for the week they had planned to spend together in Aviwe’s sister’s house. I actually changed my mind about that, was Koki’s first truth, the one she had been trying to figure out how to build up to. But now Baba is dead, so her second truth, which was really half a truth, was I really can’t go, I’m sorry bbz. I’m needed back home. And I miss them. She knew Aviwe could hear the broken shells in her voice, the ones that usually make her faltering audible to nobody but her. That’s the thing with loving, isn’t it, that lovers know too much for their own good. As she left, Aviwe planted a kiss on her philtrum; it settled like a deflated volleyball.
Lifting her suitcase so they cannot hear the wheels, Koki walks past the half-closed kitchen door and the voices brisk with instruction and cold-morning gossip, up the stairs and, without bothering to knock, into Anu’s bedroom. A light sleeper, Anu’s eyes snap open and stare at her sister’s thick socks while she tries to make sense of her limbs, long and stringy as a train of thought. Baba’s thick eyebrows arch higher on her forehead as she shifts her gaze upwards to relearn the rest of Koki.
You look like somebody folded you up and stuffed you into a bag too small for your life, she croaks, smiling at the outline of a box of cigarettes in Koki’s pocket. Ma says you should go to her when you get here.
Koki plants an obligatory kiss on her sleep-lined cheek and walks out of the room, past the bedrooms in which she knows the men are sleeping and into her parents’ room. Ma is in bed, scrolling through Serena Williams’ Instagram page. She smiles — Anu’s smile — and holds her hands up towards her daughter. Koki crawls onto the bed, which grows to be vast as a desert, hot too, and she has to stretch her back muscles to breaking point if she wants to move over all the space he used to occupy, which she does. How big can a dying man grow? Finally, she makes it into the cavity between the arms, not sure if she still has a body or if she’s made of some kind of flow. Hi, baby. Koki starts to choke on the grief caught in the folds of an aged neck so that hi, mama sounds like she is suffocating herself into a genetic crisis.
On the bedside table is a scrapbook nobody has seen in twelve years. Ma used to be a writer of fragments she planned to stitch, quite literally, into a novel one day. Anu’s and Koki’s liked the one scribbled on the back of a kanjo parking ticket. The letters looked like tortured spiders trapped in pale yellow candle wax. Like any woman, Urvi’s smile-for-the-people had had years of practice, yet behind it, she was doing unspeakable things to the people around her.” It was their favourite because later that day Ma told them about the kanjo woman who had given her the ticket: Under the yellow coat, she had on a kitenge the texture (she swore it) and colours of gift wrapping, and on her head, an Orie Rogo-style sculpture. I took that ticket like it was a gift.
The heavy knock, sharp and blinding, wedges itself in between Koki and Ma and forces them apart. Auntie Yolanda does not enter the room but calls for Ma to wake up because breakfast is ready. Ma reaches for the day’s smile on her bedside table as if they are dentures. It has slightly parched lips admirably (but not completely) disguised by a dark red lipstick, some of which is on its front teeth, where it will sit all day because everybody is too tip-toe-y to tell her to wipe it off. This smile does not wait for Ma to fix it in its place because it already knows. It settles itself on Ma’s chin, straight but weak, and she gets up. When her back is turned, her grey dress, hanging on the cupboard door ready for the day, tells Koki her mother has to perform the duties of the bereaved widow. As if the timing and method of his death have shocked her into oblivion, so that the less bereaved can pull her back.
Go get your sister, she whispers, walking into the bathroom and shutting the door behind her, timing it to muffle her sob, which has made the smile dangle dangerously. It catches itself, fixes itself anew, but Koki hears it slip anyway.
Anu is still in bed, performing her morning stretch noises but sounding more like a beached whale. Watching Koki peel off her socks – one from KQ, the other from Aviwe’s clean-laundry pile – she clambers out of bed, naked. Koki gives her a cursory glance, lingering on the scar from the appendix removal and the tattoo marred by it to make sure it is still there. Their toes are alike, tiny and pink, —they remind Koki of cartoon piglets with their faces under their mothers and their bums in the air. Anu reaches for a t-shirt, then a sweater, panties, and jeans fished out from under her duvet.
I’m glad you came, she says. They meet in the middle of the room. One holds the other. One lets her tears soak into the shoulder of the other’s green sweater. One runs her fingers through the other’s hair, checking to see if any part of her has begun to turn to salt. Nothing.
The kitchen is initially made up of bra-less hugs and morning sweat, and then it smoothly transitions into frowns, pouts, and questions. Somebody’s hand is checking behind Koki’s ears, she knew it! Eyes, noses and hands search for signs of moral decay to chuck in with the next batch of mandazi as if to make them complicated. The scrutiny provokes Aviwe’s smell in her clothes into tendrils of smoke, curling slowly towards everybody, and she is swallowed whole by anger, protectiveness, and jealousy, wanting to pull it back and keep it out of their mouths and hair. She cannot force coherent words into the short spaces left for her to be appreciative of their sticky concern, she cannot breathe, no, she is breathing too much, somebody needs to turn off the oxygen at the wall, or she needs to turn off her lungs. They conclude that she is struck dumb by loss and let a more steadfast Anu lead her out into the dining room, where the men have begun to emerge. A cup of tea and sausages wrapped in pancakes and burial plans are shoved in front of her.
So how is it down there? It must be very cold, eh? Uncle Musa’s voice cracks in her direction by way of greeting.
Yes, she nods, even though he has looked away as if embarrassed to see the pain he has been told she has. He really loved her father.
There are many hours, or many days, of urgent activity around Koki’s newness, and there are many words thrown about, wanting very alive things for the very dead man. Sometimes, glasses break, unheard over the din of precarious kinship.
The glass door to the laundry firmly locked and a tablecloth has been rigged like a curtain across it. To show it is in mourning, it has refused to open itself until the smell from the garage on the other side of the house dissipates completely. Anu follows Koki when she climbs in through the window on her first night back and when they cannot find the garage door key, they sit with their backs to it and one tells the other small truths about her lover which mingle with the three-day-old fumes. Sometimes they watch movies. Mama from Bessie tells them there is nothing lonelier than a motherless child, but they both think she just does not know what it is like to live inside a perpetual conversation on identity politics. They get caught up in the subtle politics of a fatherless house. Ma, it has been conveniently decided, is inconsolable. In the sitting room, furniture moves inch by tiny inch in the hope that she won’t notice her in-laws’ long-suffering disapprovals. Koki learns that even a successfully suicidal father does not get her out of washing the sufurias used to make ugali. Cũcũ proudly shows her the cataracts the doctor scraped off her eyes, carefully stored in a clear sachet, and is slightly affronted when she says they look like bisho.
Occasionally, older hands pinch her so she can pay attention to what they have to say about her body because they have already branded Anu’s, and their cousin Tero eloped with an Indonesian lover, gender undetermined, and promised to never return, so her judgment is more of the ethereal kind. Too thin, maybe; just old enough eh, for jokes about marriage that are not really jokes sometimes; maybe she is on TV and Aviwe is watching, horrified and tickled and empathetic as fuck. Thinking this way makes this squiggly life in a squiggly world more bearable.
Mummy whispers to them that these are the ways in which they miss Baba.
Anu’s rebellions become quieter and stronger. Her dirty laundry, found in the plates cabinet or on the stair railing, adamantly declares this house is now her house. Auntie Lorna puts Ma’s potpourri down somewhere to throw it away later, but when she looks for it, it’s gone, but not gone-gone because they can all still smell that strange smell, are you sure it hasn’t expired? But Anu knows where it is, of course she does. On afternoons when she and Koki pretend to take naps in her bed, she talks about the last few days as if she knew they were the last few days. She says his toes were so cold last week but he was always on the verge of vomiting and fever, so she had to wear three pairs of socks and drink ginger tea with cayenne pepper throughout the day, hoping to vicariously warm his feet.
The BMW was a company car. Looking everywhere but at Koki’s lips, which have turned redder since getting home, Uncle Musa asks her to get the car keys from her Ma’s room. He returns the car, comes back to the house smelling of pocket mints and spends the rest of the day reading a children’s book. She wants to ask him if they really took it back like a man did not just die in it, but she offers him a cigarette instead. He declines at first, and then they get through the whole pack together.
In the night, when the house finally exhales into the silence, Anu and Koki fill Baba’s depression in the mattress and tell Ma stories that are deliberately not about him. He is hiding behind the curtains, they know, because his vanilla scent lingers strongest there. Koki wonders if they can smell it sometimes mixing with Aviwe’s stickiness, which sometimes washes out of her hair and sometimes does not. The combination is so overwhelming, like the two of them, Anu and Baba, are working hard to force all the world’s honeycombs into the room.
The funeral wakes itself up on the cold Thursday morning, before the rest of the house. It dusts itself off—it has been years since somebody in the family died—and makes plans for the sounds, smells and looks it’s going to adopt for the rest of the day.
While everybody is still getting dressed, it twists itself into Aunty Jay’s voice when she screams in every language she knows about the large rock of shit, almost perfectly cylindrical and yellowed by turmeric, which stubbornly refuses to be flushed down the upstairs guest toilet. Later, downstairs, it becomes pre-prayer prayers and pre-hymn hymns, saturating the carpet and curtains with different keys of solemnity. In the break between Ananijali and Amazing Grace, it lands in cũcũ’s handkerchief as a thick, phlegmy glob with tiny dark flecks of what might be blood, or maybe they grew out of the handkerchief at that precise moment. It is also her mouth, which remains an unperturbed line across her face, maintaining her loss almost elegantly. In the car Koki is in, on the way to church, it lodges itself into the muted radio and under the big hats perched on everybody’s laps because of the low ceiling. Everybody, including Uncle Mo at the wheel, pretends to look for typos in the funeral program again. The funeral rearranges the letters at will to make them all think they are too dazed to read properly. In the church, it mixes with the white mucous lining the bishop’s lower lip as he recalls Baba’s earlier years in God’s service, and ignores his later years of indifference.
Outside, after the service, relatives catch up on gossip about other relatives on the other side of the parking lot. The funeral gets caught up in between poorly veiled curiosity and carefully constructed lies. Everybody remembers looking up Parkinson’s on the Internet. Cũcũ tells them he got worse quicker than anybody could move. Everybody agrees on his resilience and remembers him trying to smile at them when they visited. Aunty Jay, yellow shit forgotten, recites repetitively that he fought valiantly to the end. Everybody chastises what is now known as ‘these modern diseases’. Anu, Mummy and Koki wear their silence like closed doors on their faces and only accept condolences with nods and thankyous in turns.
In the car, the funeral breaks into parts; one catches its breath in between the two front seats and rocks back and forth and back, another is the hearse in the side-view mirror, a third is the vodka on Uncle Tim’s breath that the relatives on the other side of the parking lot gossiped about. At cũcũ’s house in Tũmũtũmũ, it is now old women with headscarves, now a fresh mound of red-red soil and all the faces Baba ever and never knew.
When they are lowering the coffin into the ground, Koki sees the funeral standing next to Anu. It looks like a tumor pulsing with the secret it is being forced to keep, so everybody else who knows is pretending it is inside the grave about to be buried for good. Desperate and sad, it begins scribbling “liar” all over Anu’s exposed skin in big, angry, red letters. In the same way she has done everything for days, Anu shrugs the words off until the funeral is tired and there is a pile of red letters taking root in the soil at her feet. The people scoop soil into their clean palms and then the men come with the spades. The hole gets smaller. The funeral decides to lurk around cũcũ’s three cows. The blind one begins to fidget.
As the buffet appears from the back of somewhere, waltzing in on spindly metal legs, Aunty Lorna gives a short speech to anybody who will listen about the downfalls of alcoholism because she has managed to sniff out who is drunk and who is not-so-much. Feeling overcrowded, Aviwe’s scent concedes there is no space for it here, and starts to walk away, trusting Koki will eventually pick a side – its side, Aviwe’s side – and follow it. Koki opens her mouth to stop it, but her youth is pounced on by one of cũcũ’s Mother’s Union friends asking in Gikũyũ for a cup of hot water. In the time she takes to comprehend mahiũ! Maĩ mahiũ! and the accompanying gestures, the scent comes back, plants a sticky kiss on the side of her still-open mouth and leaves, its edges tucked neatly into itself. The funeral makes as if to follow it, and then does not, choosing instead to sit itself under a sun umbrella with a bowl of black clay, making comical crucifixes, and Koki spends the rest of the day running errands in a language she does not understand.
About the Writer:
Wairimũ Mũrĩithi is a not-yet-writer, an all-time-reader, an editor, a secret-blogger and a very reluctant student. She lives in South Africa and Kenya, and mostly spends her time thinking and reading about memory, diaspora, grief and the 1973 film, Touki Bouki. She has written for Wiathi in The New Inquiry, Will This Be A Problem, the Kalahari Review, Short Story Day Africa and This is Africa.