Art by Nyame Brown
Nandwa didn’t hear Chemaiyo knock. She was on the floor, propped against her bed with a pillow, folding flamingoes from pink paper. It hit her, about twenty minutes later, that it was Tuesday—the day of the week when Chemaiyo came over to clean. She bounced past lumps of clothes on the floor and the cups she had dropped, which had spilled dank fluids and stained the plywood floor, past the two wooden sculptures of long-limbed squatting men outside the beaded curtain that opened to the living room. She opened the front door, ready to be contrite; but when she saw Chemaiyo waiting, unflustered, in muddy ballet shoes and a blue jacket, she held back her apology and decided to add an additional 500 shillings to her pay.
Chemaiyo ambled in and lay her ring on Nandwa’s palm. She was panting as if she had walked a long distance, as if she hadn’t used a matatu.
“I start with the clothes?” she said. Out of habit. No longer a question.
Nandwa carried the ring through the beaded curtain into the kitchen and placed it inside the tiny wooden pot on top of a fridge that mostly stored alcohol. When she went back to the living room, Chemaiyo had taken off her jacket and folded the sleeves of her T-shirt over her shoulders.
“I think there is enough Omo,” said Nandwa. “Take coins from the tin by the window and buy more if you need to.”
“You have made some effort this time round,” said Chemaiyo. “The house isn’t that dirty. But you still leave cups on the floor.”
Nandwa picked one up.
“I had guests.”
Chemaiyo’s eyes enlarged.
“It is your house,” she said. “Don’t mind me.”
For Nandwa, the world was a lump of clay for her eager hands. For Chemaiyo, it had to be a place she reported to duty with her shoulders squared. Once, when mellow from the konyagi Nandwa had offered, Chemaiyo said it was peculiar for a middle-aged woman like Nandwa to live alone in a house made from shipping containers, with its black-painted walls and curtains of red Maasai shuka. Nandwa lived on the one-eight piece of land inherited from her father, when every property owner around had moved elsewhere and used their land to build high-rise apartment blocks, five stories and more, which shielded her house, and compound, from the sun.
“I am making flamingoes for the exhibition.”
Chemaiyo looked at the scattered orange cushions and the dumpy polka-dotted beanbag, Nandwa’s only seats. Her chin bobbed.
“Flamingoes are my clan’s totem,” she said. “In our songs, we say we leave our pink feathers behind for the children to make headdresses from, which they put on to laugh and forget that they are grieving.”
Her statement summoned Nandwa’s idea to an amorphous place. Uncomfortable, she retreated to the bedroom and plugged in her earphones. She folded another flamingo.
They had boarded the same matatu at Donholm Caltex, two years back. If Nandwa had stopped to buy the plums that were in season, or had taken long to find the fifty-bob note to pay the boda boda man who carried her from Donholm Phases to Caltex, the two women wouldn’t have met.
Chemaiyo had sat next to her as she complained on the phone to her sister Tsisika, saying there was no reliable Mama Fua to help her tidy her house. When Nandwa ended the call, she felt lethargic. She desired quietness, to be spared from the heat dispensed by the afternoon sun and the greasy, exposed matatu engine. Chemaiyo leaned over, and her citrusy scent was a comforting interruption as she showed Nandwa her hands: they were rough, the skin shriveled and the nails flat and pressed in. She said that her hands were that way because she had cleaned, washed, and scoured all her life. Something in her eyes—a sincerity—charmed Nandwa to pass her phone number along. She told Chemaiyo to come over the next day and wait for her at Jacaranda Roundabout, from where she picked her up and took her home.
She told Chemaiyo too much that Friday: how Tsisika called but never visited; that she drank daily and thought she would die if she didn’t; that her fibroids had been removed eleven years back, and how, as she marveled at the knots of flesh removed from her body, she decided she would rather be at the front line at war than let a baby, an alien thing, grow in her.
“Do you have children?”
“Twin girls. They are with their grandmother in Kapsowar. Me, I am just here in Nairobi, looking for the flour that will make their ugali.”
Chemaiyo took out of her purse a picture of herself with her daughters, who seemed to be around nine years old. They were standing in front of a blooming bougainvillea. Chemaiyo was in the same brown jacket and blue skirt, and her hair was longer and plaited. The girls were in white lacy dresses and white shoes. They were smiling with their arms akimbo.
“What are their names?”
“Memoo and Kosi. I was a cook at Kapsowar Girls and this was my Sunday off. I took them out for chips and sausage. Kosi loves Sprite and Memoo Fanta Orange.”
Nandwa saw the ring when Chemaiyo slipped back the picture. She grasped Chemaiyo’s finger to look closer, and realized, by how it glistened, that it was gold. What fascinated her was the blue stone, shaped like a teardrop, inside its tiny gallery.
“I didn’t steal it,” said Chemaiyo, pulling her finger free.
“I don’t accuse people for having nice things,” said Nandwa.
Still, Chemaiyo trembled and looked around, at the acrylic paintings of guitars on the walls, at the orange cushions on the floor that were askew, at the bookcase in the corner shaped like a Venus woman and enveloped by a nasturtium vine that had slithered in through the window.
“You haven’t met a person who lives like me?” Nandwa asked.
“I just think we should live with certain limits,” Chemaiyo said. “In this life, if you aren’t careful, you will stretch till you stretch out of shape.” She rubbed her wrists. “Tell me what to do now. I don’t want to be a bother, but I have Bible study at three.”
Nandwa showed her the sink piled with week-old utensils. She took her to the adjoining container that had the bathroom and bedroom at opposite ends. Once she had seen the entire house, Chemaiyo rung a rug in water and walked around, wiping stains off the floor and walls, using a spoon to scrub when she found candle wax. She replaced fallen Akan masks, multicolored feather caps and ceramic whales on their ledges. She sung as she washed a mountain of clothes and when Nandwa couldn’t trace where the hanging pegs were, looked at her a little longer than necessary.
Three hours later, the house was clean. Chemaiyo opened the windows to let the rooms breathe. Nandwa was touched but also embarrassed. But it was Chemaiyo who stood before her, face down, stroking the ring on her finger.
“You should let me keep it for you when you come,” said Nandwa.
“If I lose it, it will be like losing my life.”
“Was it a gift?”
Chemaiyo didn’t answer.
“Can I be coming on Tuesdays?”
“Yes,” said Nandwa. “That isn’t a problem. Actually the problem is for you to tell me how much I should pay you.”
“Send on M-PESA what you may,” Chemaiyo said and left.
In four days, lumps of dirty clothes were on the floor again and unwashed cups and plates had filled the sink. Nandwa hated chores, for they reminded her that she was a metabolic, perspiring being. An act as small as sweeping could have her running to shower, eager for the rush of warm water to make her forget the discomforts of being embodied. She told herself that if she kept the house too clean, there would be no reason for Chemaiyo to come back. And she wanted Chemaiyo back, moving around the house and tidying it up, engendering bliss.
Inside her room, Nandwa strung the flamingoes she had folded with long threads and stepped on the bed to pin them on the roof. They waved to and fro when she set them free. Flying. She wanted Chemaiyo to come in and see. That was as much as she could do without blurting that she had Chemaiyo in mind when the idea first suggested itself. She wondered if Chemaiyo—as austere as she was—would make any meaning from the creation, but quickly reprimanded herself for the condescending thought.
The corridor sparkled as expected. Cups were clean and shelved. Nandwa pushed the beaded curtain aside and saw that Chemaiyo had picked the cowrie shells she had arranged in a semi-circle before one of the sculptures and heaped them on the beanbag. Chemaiyo had placed the orange cushions against the wall and at the center of the surgically-clean living room, she lay on the floor, on her back, one arm bent and pressed to her waist, the other stretched out with the palm open, as if in a greeting.
Petrified, Nandwa retreated to the kitchen and pulled out a bottle of Blue Moon from the fridge, which she uncapped and drank. She choked from the bitterness, and after a third gulp, poured it down the drain. She walked back to the living room and knelt beside Chemaiyo. Her forehead was warm although even then, an undefinable essence had separated from her physical substance. Nandwa knew she wasn’t looking at Chemaiyo, only at a shell. By dying, Chemaiyo had slipped to an envied place of rest, reminding Nandwa how horrible and heavy being alive was.
She rolled back Chemaiyo’s T-shirt sleeves and straightened the arms whose palms were already cold from the washing and cleaning. Blood dripped thinly from her ear and Nandwa realized Chemaiyo had flailed as she let go of life, scribbling circles on the wet floor with her feet. Nandwa collapsed on the cushion when she was done and sat for long, listening to a peculiar buzzing sound in the air. When hunger gnawed, she stepped out of the house and compound. She followed the murram road that twisted past wattle stalls selling tomatoes, bananas and sukuma wiki, past children playing in narrow shadowy corridors, until she reached the rusty mabati shed where she regularly bought her potato chips. The air was chilly, gray clouds sealing the sun. She asked for cold soda from the fridge and drank it as if she had crossed the Sahara.
“Are you boiling, Mama?” said the man minding the potato chips stand.
He looked like he lifted weights and had a fascinating G-clef tattoo on his arm that floated over streams of bulging veins. He smiled a little too much, disrupting the stillness necessary for Nandwa to establish how handsome he was. He was new. Nandwa had only seen a reedy whimsical girl selling there before. She concluded that he was the type of man who never hid from the world and wasn’t surprised when he plied her packet of potato chips with coleslaw and copious tomato sauce without asking her first.
“Your brain seems to be so far,” he said, and before she could answer, added, “I understand why. This Nairobi will show you things. If you meet someone along the road and they look a little wild, just nod and understand that Nairobi has turned them into an animal.”
He picked the remaining chicken nugget from the corner of the glass food container and placed it on top of her potato chips. A kind of gesture!
Nandwa picked the manila sleeve, wet with oil, and meandered through Donholm Phases: past piles of sand and granite blocks, and the dusty men building; past cows that were surprisingly rotund in an area without visible grass. Everyone seemed enlivened, convivial, bonded by a good humor she had missed out on. When she picked the last potato chip, there was no new place to walk to. She turned back.
Nandwa stepped inside the church on the thin strip of land outside her compound. It was nothing but a tattered tent with benches and a screechy sound system. The mid-morning service was in progress, attended by five people, each with a microphone, which they used to sing as loudly and as badly as they could. She felt an intestinal weight of despair when she approached the pastor, a burly, blue-suited man with evasive eyes; and her trepidation settled when she was close to him. He didn’t have to lean over to listen, for her voice reverberated.
“Please help me. There is a Mama Fua who has collapsed inside my house.”
Nandwa only had a few minutes with Chemaiyo before the pastor walked in with another man. He looked at the body and trailed his fingers over his face, pulling down his cheeks.
“Open the windows please,” he said, “before the body starts to rot.”
Soon enough, more and more people streamed in, their lips curling in wondrous Os when they spotted the body. They began to blur into each other, and a day later, she wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart, not even the police officer who asked her to sign her name on what he called a D3 form.
In that private, dwindling time, she looked up and down Chemaiyo’s corpse, hoping to find something redeeming. Chemaiyo had shaved her hair close to the skin and her mouth was open in a manner clarifying that she was gone, that she would never again breathe. The blood that had dripped from her ear had clotted on its edge and turned viscous. Nandwa wanted to touch her but was afraid to. Loneliness crawled out of its hiding place in her chest and dragged an icy, limbless body across. When the crowd grew, she stood still, hoping to be inconspicuous. She was irritated by how they moved with abandon, shredding some previously unacknowledged sacredness from her living room.
At hospital, they asked if she was family. When Nandwa said no, they told her to go home for they couldn’t give her any more information. Tsisika came over to stay and hugged her in that irritating way siblings do when they try to act caring and concerned. She cleaned the house the same day she arrived, wiping footprints from the floor and the stains left on the walls and paintings. She moved things around in a tidying effort that erased any legacy of Chemaiyo’s touch. Nandwa was too shaken to push back. And a little over a week later, she told Nandwa to sell the land and move to Joska.
“I wonder why you stay here with these people,” she said. “We are pricey people and you choose to live with the worthless in Donholm. Look for someone to exchange this land with. You will not miss someone in Ruai with even half an acre. This property is near town and many people will be eager to build a rental apartment on it.”
Tsisika was a petite woman with small cunning eyes. She had adhered to a diet that had turned her thinner. As if drawn with the quick dashes of a pencil. She was four years younger than Nandwa, but was married with three children. This alone had her acting like the sensible, older sister.
A few months earlier, she had called Nandwa before dawn, crying and complaining about her husband Mahĩhu, who was coming home late each night without an explanation. Nandwa took a taxi to their five-bedroom mansion in Ruaka. Together, they confronted Mahĩhu, locking him in the bedroom when he was about to leave for a business trip. They smashed his iPhone on the wall and tore his Samsonite suitcase to rip the clothes he had packed. Later, when they got tired, they sat down and ate ice cream. Tsisika had said she was leaving Mahĩhu for good, even if it meant building a small mabati shed and cutting sukuma wiki for the rest of her life.
Now, as Tsisika talked, Nandwa remembered Fatuma, the woman Mahĩhu had cheated with. Nandwa had stalked her on Facebook and seen the pixel-rich bikini pictures, the brown beads on an impossibly narrow waist. She wondered how it would be if Fatuma was her sister, and the one visiting. The thought filled her with a radiant emotion.
“If our parents were still here, Nandwa, they would have been surprised by your current lifestyle. You still survive on their rental income, jameni! Where is your life?”
“Mother didn’t want you at the hospital in her last days,” Nandwa said, intending to bite back.
Tsisika stroked Nandwa’s palm.
“I am worried about you staying here by yourself,” she said. “You never know what Chemaiyo’s people are thinking. Maybe they don’t see you as innocent.”
When Nandwa walked around the estate, she felt she was being watched. As if, out of nowhere, someone would grab her shoulders. Chemaiyo’s mother had called and Nandwa had been effusive in her commiserations, sending more money than necessary for the funeral, and sending more again when her mother called the next day, saying Memoo and Kosi needed school fees. Her phone started buzzing with calls from strangers—each person introducing themselves as an aunt, cousin, nephew, and asking for money. When she stopped answering, she got texts.
‘Sorry for disturbing. Please send 2,000 shillings to feed grandmother. She is starving now that her daughter is no longer with us.’
‘Did you see SMS? Please send money. God will bless you and make you richer than you are.’
‘Send 1,200 now we buy food’
‘You are our only hope’
‘You killed Chemaiyo and now you don’t want to talk to us?’
Nandwa didn’t show Tsisika the texts. She changed her number, trusting the art gallery where her flamingoes were to be displayed to reach her on email when they needed to. She stopped walking outside the compound and started depending on Tsisika for everything, even though Tsisika had started to complain that there was no air to breathe in Donholm. She said she wasn’t used to boarding a matatu, but there was no other option because if she was to bring her Prado over, its parts would be stolen by any of the suspicious young men who walked around in T-shirts branded with logos of their favorite English football teams. Only the pastor passed by to see Nandwa, standing by the gate, his palms cupped over a low fence post. His fingers were lumpy and his eyes kind, as if he wanted to weep for her. He said little after asking how she was faring. But she was consoled nevertheless and passed him some of the mandazi Tsisika had made.
At 2 am, on the day before she left, Tsisika switched on the lights and pulled the flamingoes from the roof, heaping them on the floor. She said they terrified her, swirling in the dark as if alive, as if staring at her. Nandwa scooped up the birds and took them to the kitchen. The paper had aged too quickly and the beaks were already moldy, deriding the care and attention she had used to fold them.
Her plan before Chemaiyo died was to fold at least a hundred birds and have them arrayed at the roof of the gallery, like actual flamingoes migrating. Nandwa had watched a documentary where a pair of flamingoes hatched their chick later than the rest of the flock at Lake Natron. The chick was too small to move along with her crèche when the water receded and was left to pine in the hot brine as her parents flew back each day, dedicatedly feeding her crop milk. The presenter stated that flamingoes mated for life, the female laying an egg once every three years or so, and her partner—who could also be female—sharing in the responsibility of caring and protecting the nest.
She placed the flamingoes on the table, the idea distant. What was close was a cocktail of emotions, bubbling at a time of the night when the loudest sound was that of the wind blowing over roofs. She thought of Chemaiyo coming over that Tuesday, remembered the frustrated helplessness in her mien.
Nandwa took a can of Guarana from the fridge and walked to the living room, then sat on the beanbag facing the spot where Chemaiyo had died. It was clean and waxed, as if her absence carried no meaning—an insignificant pebble on a wide causeway the living walked on. Nandwa tried to imagine that she had also moved on, doing her best to dissuade the feeling that she was lying to herself, that she was still hollow inside. And in that state of struggle, she remembered the ring.
The wooden pot wasn’t on top of the fridge. She held in a scream, knowing it was possible that Tsisika had thrown it out with the garbage. But it was on the shelf above the fridge. She took it out and opened the lid, sighing when she saw the ring. She held it close to her eye, peering at the blue teardrop, for a moment wondering if it could absorb her emotions. She tried to put on the ring but it stuck on her first phalanx, and flew into the darkness when she pulled it off. She searched desperately, asking Saint Anthony of Padua not to humiliate her more but to reveal to her where it was. When she traced it under a door hinge, she clutched it with her fist.
“Nandwa, come back to bed,” said Tsisika, standing by the doorway in her silver night dress. “You are making me scared. I am just hearing noises and someone moving around. Are you okay?”
“Is it a crime to walk around my house?” Nandwa asked.
Tsisika shrugged and went back to her bedroom. Later, when Nandwa walked in, she had turned over, sleeping as she used to when she was a child, with her legs curled and a thumb in her mouth. Nandwa leaned on her elbow and watched her sister sleep. She stroked the fine wisps of hair on the back of her sister’s neck and felt bereft the whole time, as if she had arrived alone on a bare moon.
When Tsisika left, Nandwa cooked less and less, relying on potato chips from the muscly man whose name she never bothered to learn. He had a way of talking to her that left her delighted. Like the day he told her, “Who has disturbed you, Auntie? I go beat them right now. I want to see you smiling.” It was out of context. And silly. But it made her laugh.
One afternoon, she tried to tell the man about a cat she had seen running away from a sewer rat. He kept piling potato chips into the manila sleeve without looking at her, and before she finished what she thought was a humorous story, he interrupted her and asked if she was the woman that “thing had happened to.” Nandwa kept quiet and looked on.
“A man came here, asking if I knew where you lived,” he said.
“Did you tell him?”
He laughed, his eyes a young boy’s.
“I don’t know where you live, Mama.”
He said the man who asked about her was light-skinned and presumably in his mid-forties. He was definitely not Kalenjin, like Chemaiyo, because of his faint Kamba accent. He seemed a man of some means, but also distressed as if his money had failed to grant him an expected satisfaction.
“Did he seem a bad person?” she asked.
“Now how will I know, Auntie! I am just a young man frying chips. But he left his number and told me to pass it to you.”
Inasmuch as Nandwa tried to suppress the thought, she walked with it home. The man looking for her was the man who had loved Chemaiyo enough to give her the ring. She felt unsettled, imagining that kind of love as the anchor missing in her life. No wonder she felt weightless, always floating over her days. She closed the curtains as soon as she was in the house and felt secure drowning in shadow. The pastor knocked after she had eaten; she let him in. He looked withdrawn. Once switched on, the room’s lights revealed bits of gray hair on his forehead that she had never noticed.
When he asked why she had such sad eyes, Nandwa walked to the kitchen without answering and made herself a glass of gin, pouring him Pick & Peel’s orange juice. He said he didn’t mind standing, adding that he didn’t plan to stay for long. She could tell that he had been good-looking when younger, and had taken it for granted, making no effort to eat well or to exercise. And now the sharp contours of his face were fading.
“It isn’t good for a woman to be alone,” he said. “It isn’t good before God.”
“Do you want my land?” she asked. Half-jokingly.
“I am simply a preacher,” he said. “I am not one of those greedy TV pastors.”
The declaration was absurdly funny to him and he laughed as Nandwa looked on. When he stopped laughing, he asked once more how she was feeling.
“I don’t know,” she said. It was a sincere answer.
“Also, and this isn’t out of malice: are you a Christian?”
“I am Catholic.”
“Catholics are children of God too.”
“I have heard you preach that we worship the spirit of Jezebel.”
He walked closer. He looked like he hadn’t slept well. His collar was skewed.
“I keep thinking about the look in your eyes, that time you walked into my church. I could never imagine a woman needing me that way. I was surprised that you needed my help that much.”
The pastor picked up her glass of gin and took a sip, then smiled at her with his upper lip soaked wet. He was shivering. When Nandwa tried to steady his chin, he turned his face to the side. It felt so natural then to hold his waist and pull him in, and the embrace would have retained its maternal energy had their eyes not locked: his eyes telling her that he wanted more and had wanted more for a long time; herself realizing this as a boundary she wanted to cross. She took back the glass of gin so that he could peel off his suit and reveal the man inside: hairy, soft-bellied, with an erect penis that traced its curve inside old, loose boxers. She told him not to take off his socks because the floor was cold, and she lay on the beanbag, moving her body to make him comfortable as he entered her. He cupped her breast from behind and she feared her hair would suffocate him when he pressed his mouth to the back of her head, kissing her. The pastor was too desperate to seek her cooperation, and she was grateful for that—not having to meet him halfway. As if she was a demiurge learning about being human each time he clapped her buttocks with his bony waist. The small of her back absorbed his body heat and became a new axis for her body; and when she closed her eyes, she saw the fence that stood between her house and his church brown with blowing dust. She had only started to admit her own pleasure when he grunted and released himself.
He asked for a glass of water and she directed him to the kitchen. She was still naked when he walked out; she didn’t bother to check if he had closed the door properly. It had been a while since she had sex and in its aftermath she felt she couldn’t contain herself, as if her essence had turned riotous and spilled out of the boundaries of her skin. She wondered if there was a form of love that was an intense version of this exact experience. By the time she had dressed she was sure she would call the number she had picked from the potato chips man.
Two days later, she called the number and was surprised by the man’s pleasantly gruff voice, how it didn’t hint at anything sinister. The man agreed annoyingly to her every suggestion, including meeting up at Harry’s in Umoja that Sunday afternoon. Nandwa went there on Sunday and ordered her mbuzi choma with kachumbari and ugali, doubting he would come at all, only to be disrupted by his shadow, then his actual face, as he sat across her: pale, crusty-eyed, in an oversized turtleneck. While he stared endlessly at her, she passed him her unopened bottle of Tusker.
His name was Jafari and he was an Uber driver living in Umoja. Sunday was his day off, when he would lock himself in his bedroom and sleep the entire day.
“Did you love her?” Nandwa asked.
He looked briefly confused, and when he realized what she was asking, he laughed. His teeth were as spoilt as hers, parts of his bottom incisors knocked off. She imagined him to be the kind of person who drank as much as she did.
“That woman you mean?” he said.
“So you mean to tell me Chemaiyo died just like that?”
Jafari looked at her, and Nandwa realized it was a question she was expected to answer.
“Yes,” she said, and finding the answer incomplete, added, “She wanted more from the world.”
“Even if she did, she is gone,” he said. “It is Sunday, and you and I are alive.”
He had the same ring as Chemaiyo on his finger. Nandwa saw it when he washed his hands in the basin the waiter brought over. Jafari folded his ugali into a lump and pressed a hole in the center to scoop the mbuzi choma and kachumbari. Nandwa preferred chewing a piece of ugali first, before biting the meat.
“I know you have questions,” he said. “A woman as ripe as you can ask me anything.”
She had told him about the ring over the phone, and he had said nothing. She had it with her now, in the pocket of the faded kitenge pants she had put on.
“What did you do to make her like you that way?” she asked.
Jafari laughed again, spitting out bits of ugali, some of which landed on her palms.
“It must be this man tool,” he pointed. “I use mine well.”
“I was like you too, before she died,” Nandwa said.
“What do you mean like me?” he asked, suddenly nervous.
“I didn’t have boundaries to my thoughts, to how I lived.”
Jafari tilted his head back as if trying to make her see less of whatever she had begun to notice in him. Nandwa stared at his pimpled forehead.
“Chemaiyo was steadfast and unfailingly polite. Very genuine. A rare type of person. Heaven material.”
He looked on as Nandwa spoke, and when she finished, he placed his elbow on the table, wafting Chemaiyo’s citrusy scent.
“Let me tell you about the ring. It was Friday, and after driving the drunkards of Nairobi back to their wives, I went over to my house and found myself locked outside. My wife was screaming that I could go back and sleep with the prostitutes I had obviously spent the night with. When I called Chemaiyo, she said she was at home and about to sleep. She agreed still to meet me at the matatu stage when I told her I needed her. I picked her up and we drove to town, and I bought her all the fried chicken and chips she wanted at Sonford. After fucking in a lodging, I gave her the ring I planned to give my wife. I told her it could mean anything she wanted it to mean.”
“What did she say?”
“I think she said she had never received such a gift from anyone. Or maybe she just smiled. It is hard to remember, you know! When someone dies, you make things up.”
Nandwa leaned on the table. The grains on its wood were white like ribs stripped of flesh. The tavern was filled up and stuffy but Nandwa felt alone, preoccupied with images of Chemaiyo’s body that splintered as quickly as they materialized. Fingers. Hair. Ears. Breasts. Legs. Then just the eyes.
“I thought you wanted the ring back,” she said.
“I don’t know,” Jafari said. “You can stay with it if you want. It is a trinket really. The Somalis in Eastleigh sell it cheap.”
He stretched his hands over his shoulders and yawned, spreading his legs casually.
“Chemaiyo told me about you once. About this woman she cleaned for, who had sad eyes and lived in a pretty house.”
He stood and placed 1,000 shillings on the table, for the beer and his share of the food she had ordered.
“I have to go back,” he said. “I came here thinking I could get some.” He laughed. “But I realize I need my sleep more.”
Nandwa ordered another round of Tusker and drank alone, watching people walk in. When she stepped out, the world was as ordinary as she had left it, the pavement back to Donholm thronged by passersby and by women frying and selling fish in large soot-covered, smoke-billowing vats. She saw a biscuit wrapper rise in the wind and smack the yellow stem of an acacia tree. She crossed to the other side of the road where she saw a tiny purplish flower growing near the edge of a culvert. A bee buzzed around the flower, eager for nectar. A paving truck moved slowly along the road, pressing in tar and gravel. Nandwa clutched the ring and walked faster, one hand busy wiping tears from her face. Her blurred vision caused her to fumble when she tried to open her gate. Strangers from the surrounding apartment blocks looked at her and shook their heads with pity.
Kiprop Kimutai is a Kenyan writer whose fiction has appeared in Kwani? Trust, Jalada, PBQ, No Tokens, Prufrock, Kachifo, New Internationalist and Acre Books. He was a 2019 Baldwin fellow and is currently writing his novel and a collection of stories set in Donholm, Nairobi. Find him on his Twitter handle: @Tirobon
Nyame Oulynji Brown is an Afrofuturist artist working across a multitude of mediums. Brown received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an MFA from Yale School of Art and Architecture. He is a recipient of the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Award, the Richard Driehaus Foundation Individual Artist Award, and a site-specific commission for the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. He participated in Theaster Gates’s Black Artist Retreat in Chicago, and residencies at Headlands Center for the Arts, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, and the Joan Mitchell Center, New Orleans.