FICTION: Amnesia

BY JO-ANN BEKKER

She loses the words she writes down. They travel from head to hand and fall from her fingers. She is a gardener sweeping up the words that mouths release, raking up the sentences collected on pages by lawyers and academics. She sweeps the words and sentences into a pile, then chooses just a few to display. Once they have been planted in print they leave her.

When she reads her words in the newspaper she cringes at their inadequacy. At all she could have written, but didn’t. Errors of grammar and style scream out at her. But if she returns to the reports a few weeks later, she thinks perhaps she did the best she could, considering the pressure of time, considering the restriction of word limits.

Decades later she finds her reports on a civil conflict, reads them as if for the first time.

We were in our yard when we saw the group coming. We went inside but they broke the windows and climbed inside. They stabbed me three times, on my back, then they threw stones at my wife. They chopped our hands with a bush knife.

Later that night our five-roomed house was burnt down. Our younger sons took the dogs but we don’t know what happened to our pigeons.

This is what we lost in the fire or have left behind:
A truckload of sand and 12 bags of cement to plaster the house
Furniture.
A fridge.
A hi-fi.
An orchard which produced oranges, naartjies, peaches, pears, loquats, grapes, lemons, apples and sugar cane.
A vegetable patch which yielded mealies, potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.

She remembers her week in that small city. She stayed in a hotel at one end of the street. The Supreme Court was at the other end.

The conflict was between an ethnic political party and the new civic front. The front claimed the ethnic party had the tacit or even active support of the state: their warlords were known to the police but remained free. The civic front brought interdict after interdict against the warlords. But no one was arrested. The warlords remained at large. The conflict raged on.

We had two rondavels and a seven-roomed house of concrete bricks. It was not yet completed. We were just about to put the roof on. The children ask about our three cows, 28 chickens and three dogs. More than anything the older ones want to go back to their school.

She has a vague memory of interviewing refugees in suburban servants’ quarters. Her report says she also interviewed a woman hiding in a church room:

My 70-year-old father was murdered. This happened after he brought an application against warlords who threatened him because my brother supported the civic front. My father’s murderers were the same men he named in his affidavit. They stabbed him to death. They stabbed me twice. The police have arrested no one.

She cannot recall the face of this woman.

She remembers driving out of town. The hills green and dotted with homesteads. Her report has a photograph of a warlord she interviewed. He denied calling for violence at a public meeting. He said members of the civic front had attacked leaders of his ethnic party first. But he added: The police were, however, able to protect us and we reached home safely.

She remembers spending days sifting through affidavits collected by religious groups and human rights lawyers. Her reports contain the names of the priests and attorneys she interviewed. She can’t recall their faces. She can’t remember writing the words she wrote.

She remembers what she didn’t write down.

Her first night in the city. She phones the older brother of a childhood friend. A tall measured man. They speak haltingly over dinner about their jobs and relationships. They sit side by side in a movie theatre while an actress boils her married lover’s pet rabbit in a pot. They part quickly afterwards.

Her last night in the city. Her hot humid hotel room. A ringing phone. A human rights lawyer saying come for supper. She has already eaten. A ringing phone. A lawyer listing the reasons why she should join him and another journalist and another lawyer. A restaurant in an old colonial building. The lawyers are hilarious.

FICTION: Smiley

BY KIMBERLY BETH WATSON

I used to visit her Facebook profile sometimes and shake my head because she’d become a statistic of small town living. You know, married at like 20. Spawned a couple kids. It was always kind of shocking, though. Like she was smart. Definitely smarter than me. She even did a semester at New Mexico State studying biology. But when I ran into her mom, Kathy (who “could have been gay”, my own mother told me), she said it had been “too far away from home”. Home, that illusive concept. Both of ours were somewhere in the litter of houses scattered on the borders of large forests, or along the winding interstate parallel to the Lamoille River. It might have even been picturesque as long as you passed through at 50 miles an hour. When it’s a blur you can’t see the addiction, the bi-weekly visits from child protective services, the well-meaning moms who chain-smoke with their minivan doors rolled up, passing out Capri-suns.

 

I remember an email she wrote to the Hotmail address my mother made for me in our early high school days when we were still kind of in touch. She was writing to say she had “done everything except for vaginal sex” with the older brother of our mutual friend Alicia. Her parents had found out and she was definitely going to get in trouble. The frustration of conservative parents trying to control a girl who has discovered herself was beyond the boundaries of my imagination.  She had been top of her class in bible study. She did that shit out of school, like, on her own free time, voluntarily. Yet she was always kind of wild, in that backwoods eclectic podunk way that lets you have god but also tie-dye everything and country music.

But yeah, that guy wasn’t the best dude. Once when the bus dropped me off he yelled, “Don’t you live with a bunch of fags?” and I went home and asked what “fags” was. In retrospect, his family had all kinds of their own problems. Alicia told me her step-dad used to, you know, to her and her little sister. She told her mom Helen but the woman stayed with him. I know he’s still on the sex offender registry because I’ve looked. I hear Helen drives the school bus now.

 

There were weird shows her parents wouldn’t let her watch, like CatDog on Nickelodeon. In retrospect I guess it is perverted that an animal has two heads and no ass. When I was 9 her 10-year-old brother asked me out while we were sitting on the couch but when I told her she was grossed out and I broke up with him 5 minutes later. In between her bible study wins and obscure trips, like the time she went to Australia, at least three boys in our school fell in love with her. I remember one of them was literally obsessed with her in the fourth grade. It was even cooler because he was in grade five. That was the year our teacher let us assign our own nicknames he promised to use all year.

“Smiley”, she said.

 

I guess wanting more for someone is kind of selfish. Like having the audacity to “see more” for someone demeans their personal life agenda of important and fulfilling things.

But on the other hand, your life does kind of end when you have a kid young in a small town and also lack higher education, right?

I mean, she works at the village pizza place now. Okay, it’s the co-op local organic Vermont version of pizza, but it’s still in a village.

She’s probably happier than I am. Actually, I can say that for sure. In an organic way, not like in the way that people crop and edit their pictures because she’s not on Facebook that often and doesn’t even care that she has a double chin in her profile picture because she’s just happily laughing with her son. Plus, she’s definitely learned all those things you presumably learn when you become a mother: the innate selflessness, the radiating beauty of creation, the self-sacrifice.

So I guess that’s happiness.

I always felt bad for mauling her with attention when she schlepped all the way to visit me in the city. I was 11 and lonely and didn’t know why my own uprooting happened. But also thank god it did.

Anyway babies are gross or barely tolerable.  We’re not friends on Facebook.

FICTION: Aunty Ose

BY ALUKA IGBOKWE

The memories of Aunty Ose remains, determined to overshadow the the playful recollections of my prepubescent years: war start with street boys, Okoso with neighbours which left our fingers smarting, hide and seek and hopscotch with willing girls.

Aunty Ose or Pepper Aunty. The moniker was not because she sold peppers at main market or because she shared a tender redness with danjarawa peppers. It was because she derived a deep personal happiness from hurting others. Some of us can remember such people: people who kidnapped footballs, who drove us away from play grounds, who reported us to our parents if we climbed guava and mango and orange trees. Aunty Ose was such a person.

Aunty Ose was a stout woman with a reddened skin lined with crooked green veins reaching out like roots – evidence of many years of toning with cheap bleach. She wasn’t married, but it was said that her husband drove her out because she was barren. I wondered what kind of man would marry a woman who wears a frown like a second face and appears to be perpetually smelling the air. Others said she was a witch. I did not know which to believe. I just wanted her to leave our street and let us play until our heads ached, until our throats were parched and our limbs bruised. But she would have none of that.

One day, I was playing football with Confusion, Rubber Boy and Jet Li. We constructed a makeshift field by walking six steps one foot in front of the other and then drove cassava stems into the soil to serve as goal posts. Jet Li and Rubber Boy against me and Confusion. We had been sent home for not paying school fees, so we played during school hours. We liked it each time we were sent home. In fact, most times, whenever Uncle Kalu sauntered into our classroom with that Book of Life of his that is as big as an encyclopedia holding the names of debtors and creditors on separate pages, we would leave before he mentioned our names, even if we had paid.

We like to give ourselves names. It makes us feel important. He was called Confusion because he had a quarter-past-four eye. He would be looking at you and you would think he is looking at another person. If he happened to be looking at another person, it would be like he was staring at you straight in the eyes. I think he enjoyed confusing us.

Rubber Boy was named for his previous life playing rubber bands. Green, red and yellow rubber bands circled his wrists like bracelets – trophies from games with street boys.

Jet Li, at the slightest provocation, would aggressively kick the air this way and that way like an atilogwu dancer, as if he were strong. I could beat him and I’ve beaten him before with all his fake kung-fu.

I do not want to share my name because I am ashamed and I do not want you to start laughing at me.

When Aunty Ose returned from where ever she went, we knew that trouble loomed. She refused our greetings, which was not unusual, but we didn’t care, so we continued playing. When she came out again, we knew she was coming to pierce our hearts with her assegai and beat our bodies into shape with her knobkerrie. She called Confusion over. Their lips moved and we couldn’t make out what they were saying. He returned and said she asked us to leave her house front, and that she wanted to sleep. I confirmed she was really a witch – who else would sleep at noon so as to be awake and fly in the night.

It’s not that we didn’t agree to leave. We planned on leaving, except that Rubber Boy committed a foul before she came out to tell us to leave, so we wanted to play it out before we moved elsewhere. Since Jet Li is the goalkeeper on their side and Confusion is the goalkeeper on my side and Rubber Boy committed the foul, I was the one to take it. I was glad I didn’t acquiesce to becoming the goalkeeper. I would have missed this golden opportunity to prove to Jet Li that I am a great footballer and not the ‘JB’ he always called me.

I bent over and positioned the ball at the spot the foul was committed. I scooped warm soil round the ball because it was always rolling over. Satisfied that the ball was firmly in place, I stepped back and locked eyes with Jet Li. Jet Li squatted into an imaginary chair, waiting for my kick. I looked back at Confusion to give me that go-ahead look but he gave me that be-fast look. I rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

I muttered a word of prayer and looked around at imaginary spectators. I saw them waving at me with permanent smiles on their faces. I drew my foot backwards and released it so the ball could curve outwards. The white ball stiff with trapped air was making a smooth journey, but instead of moving in the direction it had been shot, it took a sharp turn as if it had suddenly developed a mind of its own, as if something was playing sweet ogene for it. It was heading directly at Aunty Ose’s louvres, bent on shattering them.

It slammed into them and the louvres chased each other towards the ground. They covered the cement floor with uneven shards. For a moment, the wind paused and the trees quieted as if in solidarity. Silence enveloped us. We stood unflinching, unmoving, stoic. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we dashed off at once to hide behind the oil palm tree.

Stooped behind the oil palm tree like harried dogs, we feared for our lives. If Aunty Ose was really a witch, she would surely come in the night and drink our blood and eat our flesh and fly away with our skeletons. If she reported us to our parents as usual, it could be worse. It is like killing us and calling back our spirits and killing us again.

Aunty Ose rushed forward through her back door, her wax wrapper loosely wound around her chest, screaming, “Chim o, umuaka a egbugom o!” My God, these children have killed me!

“We should go and tell her sorry” Rubber Boy said, his voice light and feathery.

“Shhh. Do you want to die?” Confusion said, “Haven’t you heard she is a witch? Have you forgotten what she did to Yahoo Yahoo the last time?”

“What if she finds us?” I croaked, choking back tears.

“Shut up! She will find us if you continue this way. Let her find us and I will show her some skills” Jet Li said, wringing his hands like two entwined snakes.

I shot him fierce eyes and said “Onye ara, madman, you’re the one that’ll make the first run if she…”

“Will you two kom-kombilities just shut your stinking buccal cavities?” Confusion interjected harshly, his voice high. I do not like Confusion, he feels because he can speak big big English and because his father is a lecturer at the University College, he had somehow become a lord over us.

By this time, Aunty Ose had stopped wailing. She had reemerged from her house fully clad. She peered around, sniffing like a dog, as though certain we were hiding somewhere nearby. When her search proved futile she made for the exit. We did not need a soothsayer to tell us where she was going. Tonight, we are going to be killed and have our spirits called back again to be killed all over.

There is this myth that if as a child, you tie a knot at the tip of ashara tea before your assailant reached your home, your parents would forget everything they heard. Just like that, amnesia. Buoyed up by this myth, we searched frantically for the nearest ashara tea to make a knot. If we must escape the wrath of our parents and not have our buttocks tender and swollen as retribution from papa’s cowhide, we have to make a knot at the tip of ashara before Aunty Ose reached our homes.

We searched until we came upon a cluster of green lemon grass shaped like broken knife blades. We took our positions and faced our chosen stems. We each chose the greenest we could find. We called her name thrice: “Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose! Aunty Ose!” and tied our knots slowly so that the grass would not snap. That done, we were certain our parents would forget whatever Aunty Ose had come to tell them and come to receive us prodigal sons with arms spread apart whenever we returned.

FICTION: Funky House Won’t Save Your Life

BY LAILA LE GUEN

“Finally! I’ve been trying to reach you since eight! Are you OK?”

Joyce’s voice sounded strained on the other end of the line.

“I’m so sorry! I’m on my way. I wasn’t feeling too well this morning but I’ll be there within the next hour.”

Joyce would know what “not feeling too well” meant. She would understand. Though what if she didn’t?

Stop this train of thought. Now. Take a deep breath, don’t let the tears roll out. Deep breath in…and out, just like in the YouTube yoga videos.

 

After the call, Rebecca leaned against the wall in the entrance hall, her palms flat on the cold surface. She looked down at the pointed high heel shoes that were already pinching her toes and distractedly straightened up the pencil skirt she had selected to match with her purple headdress.

She closed her eyes to visualise the journey to All Saints Cathedral, a trick her therapist had suggested at their last session. Exit Ngumo estate, take Mbagathi Way, go straight on at the Kenyatta Hospital roundabout, drive all the way down Valley Road and take a right to enter the church’s parking lot.

Breathe in, breathe out.

It wasn’t working. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest as she pictured horrible images of drive by shootings and falling trees and a chandelier crashing over Joyce’s radiant smile. Great, now she was shaking.

Time to go, shaking or no shaking. She picked up the pastry box from the kitchen counter and rearranged the pink ribbon that had been artfully wrapped around it; that was an image to hold on to. Traffic was dense but nothing unusual for lunchtime on a Saturday. She played an upbeat funky house mix in the car, the kind of music that usually lifted her spirits, but today the mist that was hanging over her head wouldn’t dissolve so easily. The cake was nestled in the passenger seat like an accusatory sign.

It was meant to be her home-baked, personalised wedding gift to Joyce and Patrick. The night before, she had carefully traced the initials J + P in chocolate sauce on top of the perfect vanilla frosting. When she was done, she had cocked her head with a smile of satisfaction. But right now, she had a sinking feeling that something was going to go wrong.

What if Joyce didn’t like the cake and suddenly decided that they couldn’t be friends anymore, that she didn’t need all this inexplicable drama Rebecca always brought into her life?  That would be such a disaster.

Keep your eyes on the road. Eyes on the road!

 

Her internal monologue didn’t let up until after the ceremony, when the emotion of seeing two of her best friends married submerged her. At least her teary eyes weren’t out of place here among the crowd of friends, relatives and colleagues assembled to celebrate the union.

 

The music was blasting in Joyce’s mum’s living room, the reception now in full swing after a heavy meal of lamb pilau and the obligatory series of tedious speeches. Joyce had insisted on having the reception at home in Kilimani, partly to save money, partly to craft an intimate gathering rather than a show of married bliss at some fancy resort.

Rebecca imagined floating in a sea of velvet. She danced furiously to extirpate the destructive thoughts out of her body.

The December holidays were around the corner, which meant facing long weeks of solitary lesson planning for the following semester. She tried to imagine what her students were doing but she had a hard time picturing what their homes looked like or where they might be going during the holidays. Joyce was going to be away in the Seychelles on her honeymoon and Nairobi would be at its quietest.

Everything faded at the end of the year, the litany of “It’s December” ringing in everybody’s ears as a shorthand for “Let’s get away and forget about work until next year”. She should get away too, forget about it all.

 

Over the eight years of their friendship, Rebecca had wondered many times about the nature of her feelings for Joyce. They had once taken a trip to Nakuru together, a “girls’ weekend out” as they called it, and in the spartan hotel room, Rebecca had flashes of what their lives would be like if they were to move in together. As Joyce was tying her headscarf for the night, Rebecca had wanted to stroke her cheek, place her hand in the small of her back and pull her into an embrace. Instead, she made a lame joke about the receptionist’s thick accent.

 

She caught Patrick’s eye at the drinks table. She could see that he was feeling hyper, high on life and a little booze. Joyce was chatting with a group of her mum’s friends, flailing her arms in the air in a familiar gesture of excitement. Maybe she was telling them about their honeymoon plans.

The emotions were threatening to bubble to the surface again so Rebecca went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat, staring at her Twitter feed without taking anything in. When she looked up, she saw the nail scissors by the sink. Tuft by tuft, she started cutting her hair in front of the mirror, and it fell down in little bundles on the bathroom floor until half of her head was free.

In a few hours, the house would be silent, emptied of its guests, with the paper plates in the bin and the leftover wine in the fridge the only signs of their passage. And she, Rebecca, would be on her way to a new life.