In the wee hours, as Kabanda Lutola slept quietly, his chest uncovered and his eyes slightly open so that he looked dead at first glance, Mukeni crept out of his bed, padded across the false-wood floor and reached into her night bag for a mint tin. She pushed the door’s handle down, and eased the door open. Lutola’s living room was in heavy darkness. As Mukeni made for the open plan kitchen, she walked into a stool, and froze at the noise of its scraping across the floor even as a shock of pain bit into her knee. Keeping the water she fetched from a dispenser quiet was even harder. She stopped to listen for any movement from the bedroom then opened the mint box and popped a 20mg pill of Citalopram into her mouth and gulped water. The pill tasted of guilt and metal.
The lights went on. She startled, caught in the brightness. Lutola stood with his arm resting on the frame of the bedroom door. His eyes were narrowed at her.
“Hey. Did I wake you?” Mukeni said, clutching her disguised pill box in her palm.
He came up to her and gave her a studious look that made her nervous and brought the night’s cold to bear on her naked body.
“You are perfect,” he whispered, hoarse with sleep, and bit down playfully on her collarbone.
He was asleep almost as soon as they’d got back in bed, but she lay beside him, her thoughts travelling through labyrinths of memory, back to her long-ago-life in America.
When she thought of snow, even on a sunny day, her body chilled. That burning whiteness, the dampened sounds and crunch beneath her boots as she walked into the nighttime isolation of her college’s football field. The lights around the perimeter were yellowed cones bent in vaporizing thought so that the center of the field remained a dim mystery and the wood beyond the field a black, undefined wall.
Did anyone hear her howling out there?
“Help me,” she whispered.
“Please help me,” she begged.
“Please, Lord. I can’t do this anymore,” she yelled.
“Don’t let me die.” Her toes burned with the cold, no matter the three pairs of socks she wore and her $150 snow boots.
“Oh God. Oh Jesus,” she howled.
The depression was worse in the winters. In the summer, the fragrant air and the incessant cicada mating calls were a relief from the clutch of running thoughts that drilled through her brain. Her head noisy, she often felt dissented, consumed by too many happenings, so that she felt worn out and had to put an effort into smiling, into speaking words that left her hollow, into carrying all the expectations placed on her in class, at her student job, and on the tennis court, into brushing her teeth twice a day, into showering, into ironing her clothes, into reminding herself every morning that she could not just lay there all day, that she was an engine made for movement and activity, that she could not simply forsake herself.
By her senior year, she’d already attempted suicide once, pills, saved only by the thought that her family would have to fly her body ten thousand kilometres back to Nairobi. Then she’d trudged across campus to the chapel and, for two hours, knees pressed into wooden pew, she tried to remember all the things she had to live for. They were few. But she whispered them to herself over and over, over the knuckles of her clasped together hands, a chain of words and salvation.
She graduated seven months later and went to New York for her first job. And there, in the City of Dreams, everything that could have been broken about her broke, poured and flowed into a drain. Each day she came closer to the reduced dosage her psychiatrist insisted would be adequate. Was she already unravelling? Would she again find herself on her bathroom floor rocking back and forth, cradling pain that occupied an unknowable and innermost part of her?
Lutola moved next to her; he was awake and seemed to have been watching her in the dark for a time.
“What is it?” he asked.
She shook her head even as she wondered if he could see the gesture. He brought his hand to her cheek. “What is it, Mukeni? Tell me.”
She felt a sob coming up her throat and her muscles contracting around it like a valve. Her instinct was to lie, to deflect, but she was tired. “I’m scared,” she admitted.
He raised his torso and supported his head with his hand. “Are your parents that tough?”
“Not about that.”
His eyes were red pinpoints of light, reflecting the glow of the mosquito repellent device plugged into a socket beside the bed.
“It’s hard to explain,” she said.
She lay on the arm he offered. “The future is so huge, Lutola.”
“It’s really huge.”
“Did something happen with Sang?”
Again, that sob and her throat catching it before its escape. “You don’t understand. I can’t explain it.”
“Help me here. Come on.”
They lay face to face on the same pillow, but Mukeni could not feel his breath on her skin. He might not have been there at all.
“What makes you so sure about tomorrow or five years from now?” she asked. “The future is like standing under a collapsing tower.”
He gathered her to himself, so close that she wanted to fold into foetal position and just let them meld. “I don’t know what comes next, but the future will come whether we run into it or cower from it, right?” he said.
She did not want to be rational. She wanted to simmer in her fears, but he would not release her from his arms. Instead, he sang to her in a quiet, rough voice.
Tulo Tulo, Kwata omwana. Bw’otamukwate ng’olimulogo Ssebo owulira
Tulo Tulo, Kwata omwana. Bw’otamukwate ng’olimusezi Ssebo owulira
“What does it mean?”
He told her, but the next morning as she sat in the chair at the bedroom window, coffee mug in hand, gazing at the mabati roof of a kindergarten six floors below, and hedge fences guarding lone bungalows, and trees with branches spread wide like greedy fingers, and a skyscraper echoing the sunrise far away in Westlands, she could not remember the words or meaning of the lullaby.
Lutola was a lump under the duvet on his bed and so still, he might not have been there. He was a good man, she thought, better than any she had been with before, but… There was always a ‘but’; she just had not found it yet. As far as she could tell, he changed his clothes daily, underwear and socks included; he called her every morning and night although they worked together; he talked just enough such that their conversation was a pleasant seesaw. Still, she would find something soon, and she would fall right back into reality. She always did. But this time, she intended to land like a cat. Whatever happened, she would not allow Lutola to hurt her. She had done enough hurting in the name of love. She’d been stupid and kind and understanding over and over and all it had done was wear her as thin as an insect’s wing. She was done, done, done.
In this manner, she talked herself out of the guilt that had been settling on her since the previous Friday when she had asked Lutola to accompany her to a family gathering. Yes, she was using him. With him at the mass and the dinner thereafter, the lengthy discussion of family matters her mother intended would not be possible or would be truncated. And her father? He would certainly feel disrespected by her not doing things the right way, as he called it. Which of her siblings had ever dared bring a girlfriend or boyfriend home until they were formally engaged?
But Lutola… He was stirring awake now, pushing off the duvet, squinting at her through one eye, trying to remember who she was and where he was.
“Good morning, beautiful.”
After those first few seconds of confusion, he was up and moving like an engine started up after a night of rest. He slipped pants over his boxers and tried to smooch her.
“Toothbrush first, Mr. Lutola.”
“Let’s bet in two months you will be using my toothbrush,” he said.
He proffered his small finger and insisted that they make a bet. And then he was on her, smelling of peppermint toothpaste, kissing and tickling her.
“You’re going to break the cup,” she protested as he got more serious.
When he was done with her, she was thoroughly satisfied and spent, melting into his bed.
“And now, breakfast,” he said.
They went to the garden restaurant close to his apartment. He liked such spaces; quiet, little-known hang-outs that were almost always converted townhouses, the haunts of Nairobi’s expats, places that offered eccentric menus featuring such items as zucchini pasta and roasted halloumi burgers. He had not taken her to a conventional café once so far, and she liked that he was still trying to impress her, still unsure of what he was to her. Experience had taught her that men spat at niceness in women.
“Feeling nervous?” she asked, smiling over the rim of her mimosa.
He gave her an intense look, more serious than she had intended to provoke.
“So what’s the beef between you and your dad?” he asked.
It was too beautiful a day. The garden around them was pretending to be wild yet was everywhere marked by signs of pruning and tidying. Thick bamboo separated their gazebo from the next and, in it, a small creature scurried about, held itself still for long minutes, listening, Mukeni imagined, then scurried again.
“Who says there is beef between us?” she asked.
“Come on. You’ve been dropping hints. You wanted me to notice and ask about it.”
“He did something.”
“I can’t tell you.”
He gulped his remaining mimosa and signaled the waiter for a refill.
“So you don’t trust me,” he said.
“No. Not yet.”
“Honest. You mean honest. I don’t do relationships based on lies, Lutola.”
He smiled at her so openly, that little kid again, she looked down at her plate and moved her last bit of egg about to avoid showing her pleasure at that smile.
“So we are in a relationship?” he asked.
“That’s not what I said.”
“It’s kind of what you said.”
She avoided his eye, but she didn’t say no.
“Good enough,” he said, and raised his fresh glass of mimosa.
When they arrived at Mukeni’s parents house, the guard-cum-gardener-cum-Mukeni’s dad’s right hand man stepped out of the gate, squinting at Lutola’s white S-class Mercedes.
“Yes?” he said on Lutola’s side of the car.
“Ni mimi, John,” Mukeni said, and the man made an exaggerated salute then pulled the gate open to reveal a carbro-block driveway sentineled by jacarandas in bloom.
If Lutola was impressed or surprised, he kept his face impassive. Mukeni had a moment’s panic at the realization that she knew nothing about his family or background, yet here she was letting him right into the heart of her life. But what could he do with the information? Tell everyone she came from money? He didn’t need her money, for sure.
Her older brother’s car was parked in the driveway. thank God; her mother already had her sister-in-law to chew down on and three grandkids to spoil, so she would not start lecturing Mukeni right at the doorstep. But Mukeni’s father’s Land Cruiser was absent. Had he sold it off or had he finally taken himself out of their lives? If the mass was about praying for their father, Mukeni promised herself she’d walk right out.
“Just a sec,” Mukeni said and adjusted Lutola’s tie, which she had tied herself, having an almost palatable dislike of too thin and too fat tie knots.
He looked over her and for the third or fourth time since she’d slipped into her dress, he seemed about to make a comment, but did not. The bare-back, halter neck, high-low, chiffon dress seemed to bother him although its front hem showed almost no thigh when she sat down.
“I didn’t know you were a conservative type.”
He laughed. “Where did you get that idea?”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“That dress is just giving me ideas I should not be having when headed to prayer.”
“Dirty brain,” she said, pushing his head with a finger.
Her parent’s housemaid came to the door when Mukeni rang and stared at Lutola as though he were a tourist attraction. She was a nosy, little woman who thought wearing bras was optional and who had tattled on Mukeni several times when she still lived at the house.
“Father amefika, Mildred?” asked Mukeni, purposely skipping over a greeting.
Mildred was equally as contemptuous in her response. Mukeni discovered that her father had only driven to the Catholic Church four kilometers away to bring back the priest. She would have to see him soon and greet him respectfully so that her family could pretend he had done nothing wrong.
The foyer was cool. Mukeni caught herself frowning in the mirror hanging on the wall over the console table. As per house rules, she had Lutola remove his shoes and put on house slippers, then took his hand and led him towards the sound of her brothers’ large voices, bouncing off the walls in laughter.
“That guy is just stupid, man,” her younger brother was saying, waving his hand in denial of something Mukeni’s older brother had said.
They sat in sofas across the living room from each other, with the TV on between them, playing cartoons for the kids. Mukeni noted that her mother had changed the curtains on the three large windows and repainted.
“Yo, sis. Mum was just about to flip. You’re late,” said her younger brother.
“The text said 2pm.”
Her older brother stood up and shook Lutola’s hand. His children looked away from the TV for exactly two seconds to wave at Mukeni. She didn’t want their attention anyway; they were too energetic for a Saturday afternoon.
“Lutola, my older brother Felix. Felix, Kabanda Lutola, my friend, ” she said. “And this is our family clown, Noah or just No.”
Noah put on a hurt face. “Sis, how can you introduce me like that, bana?” He turned to Lutola. “I’m a serious guy by the way. Studying to be a doctor. Very serious.”
Felix studied Lutola silently. He had punched at least one boy over Mukeni when they were kids. But here came his wife, Beatrice, to save the day, already in an apron and bearing a tray of beverages.
“Eeh, Miss-See-You-Once-a-Year, you have arrived?”
They hugged. She smelled of jasmine, of peaches, of cozy maternal joy. How she had ended up loving Mr-Always-Serious-Felix was a mystery. Mukeni could not help but picture her brother as a domineering husband; he was a domineering older brother and had been in her business all through childhood, and into university, until she moved out of their parents’ house and started hanging up on him whenever he called to quarrel.
Beatrice’s eyes twinkled when Mukeni introduced Lutola, and then she stole Mukeni away towards the kitchen.
As she left the room, Mukeni heard Felix ask in a voice lower than his normal one, ” So what do you do for work, Kabanda?”
Her mother had upgraded to a two-door fridge and added a breadmaker to her collection of appliances. Mildred was sitting on a stool by the open door that led into the backyard and laundry area, peeling vegetables and letting their wiggling skins fall into a makuti tray at her feet.
“Where did you find him?” asked Beatrice, bringing plates and cutlery down from cabinets above the marble counters.
Mukeni found herself suddenly shy. Beatrice always spoke with such genuine, open feeling. Her voracious curiosity did not match the demure, reserved, manicured lady she presented in public.
“He found me. At work.”
“Uuh. Office affair? Scandalous. Doesn’t your company have a policy?”
“We are careful.”
“This I must hear in full detail. Let me finish this,” she said, with an expression that almost made Mukeni laugh for its girlish naughtiness.
Then Beatrice busied herself with taking the serving dishes full of food out into the dining area and serving each of the men a mountain of food, even Lutola who protested, being still full from breakfast. Beatrice was the picture of domesticity and she carried happiness on her like the white dusting of confectioner’s sugar on cake. Mukeni shut her eyes at the thought of being like that, curvy and soft with no sharp angles of personality against which people might hurt their knees or elbows. And yet, Mukeni’s mother did not like Beatrice, had even opposed Felix marrying her and had had to be cajoled for two years. Beatrice with her nursing diploma, a rural childhood and a polygamous, drunk father would not do for the first born son of the family.
“No. I can’t,” said Mukeni to a plateful of food.
“Look how thin you are?”
“Gym and intermittent fasting,” said Mukeni.
Beatrice rolled her eyes and immediately shouted at her children, “Bring your heads here and eat, you three, or I will disconnect the T.V.”
It was difficult to see quiet Beatrice ever wielding a switch, but she must have, and often, because her children obeyed immediately and arrived at the dining table in a line like little ducklings. They ate carefully and quickly, even the little boy of three.
“Have you even greeted your Aunt?”
“Hello Auntie,” they chorused.
“So sweet,” said Mukeni, terror filling her. She would one day have a brood of these little creatures to shape into useful, moral human beings. How would she do that when she felt still unformed at twenty seven? She watched Lutola laugh at something No had said and wondered if he wanted kids. Oh, what was she thinking? Theirs was just a fling, a good time. She always did this, plan out some stupid future in her head and then feel like death when things ended.
She looked up when a creak sounded on the stairs leading down from the upper floor of the house. Mukeni’s mother’s voice followed: “Has that girl arrived yet?”
Mukeni went to meet her at the bottom of the stairs. Her mother’s eyes bored into her as she made her way down the stairs, in a high, yellow gele and a fish tail, lace dress that was black and jungle green with speckles of gold and red. The dress’s neck spread low and wide to reveal fleshy shoulders, and around her neck was at least half a kilogram worth of necklace, arresting and coral red. She wore rings on three fingers, a manacle of a bracelet matching the necklace and gold, slip-on heels. Mukeni could not help admire her mother’s self possession.
J’Adore by Dior wafted off of her as she leaned in to hug Mukeni. Their bodies did not truly touch. She whispered into her daughter’s ear, “It is good that you still know how to obey your parents.”
To this, Mukeni responded with a too loud announcement: “I brought a visitor. He wanted to come for mass.”
Her mother’s face went slack at the sight of Lutola, striding towards her, but she quickly rearranged it and took the hand he stretched forward her as he recited his four ponderous names.
“They really know how to name kids in UG,” supplied No from the couches.
Their mother managed a tongue-tied, “Nice to meet you. Welcome to our home.”
“We work together,” said Mukeni.
“Work together?” echoed her mother. “And you are Catholic?”
“No, ma’am. Anglican. But I am interested in understanding different faiths.”
“That is very noble,” she said in a tone Lutola would think encouraging, but which Mukeni knew to be sarcastic. “Well, sit down. Feel at home. The priest will be here soon.”
“Come help me with something,” she said, taking Mukeni’s wrist and leading her into the kitchen, past Beatrice and Mildred and out into the backyard.
The grass here was thick and neatly trimmed except around the bases of the metal poles holding up the clotheslines. The clothes Mildred had hung up that morning were almost dry and stirred with sun-kissed lightness. A wet mop stood on its stick against the wall, a languid spectator.
“Do you have nothing between your ears?” asked Mukeni’s mother. “Are you trying to provoke your father?”
“He is just a friend, mum.”
“You think I cannot see what you are trying to do?”
“I’m doing nothing.”
“What will Father Onesmus think?”
“What have I done wrong?”
“You ungrateful little… ” Her mother’s face creased with ugliness and her hand rose, but a voice stilled it: “Mum.”
Felix was at the kitchen door watching them.
“Mum,” he repeated. “The priest is here.”
“I will fix you, young woman. Mark my words,” said her mother, sweeping into the house.
Felix did not follow her. Instead, he approached Mukeni, hands in the pockets of his suit trousers.
“Why did you come at all? Just to start fires?” he asked.
“What did you want me to do after that text?”
“So I said he is not doing fine and you came to upset him.”
“Upset him? He destroyed people’s lives. Hundreds of people’s lives.”
“And so? Are you the judge?”
“I’m not like you.”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” He eyed the mop for a moment then continued. “No, you are not like me.”
He walked away before she could respond, and she remained in the sun, reminding herself that she had done much more with her life than Felix ever had. He was their father’s yes man, having given up his own dreams in music to comply with their father’s demands that he study engineering and then an MBA so that he could run the family’s construction business. He did not dare do anything that might lose him his future inheritance. But how could he stand what their father had done to all those people?
She should not have come. She was not tethered to them. She had gone and made a career and a life for herself, but here she was, back again. Her father’s voice reached her like the cold, tongue of water thrown from a bucket. She crouched and plucked a strand of grass. She’d wanted to see him, yes. See if he had changed. She did not hate him, oh God, she didn’t.
In fact, when she did go inside and saw him, she felt as though someone had hit her on the head with a mallet and left her vibrating thinly. He was more grey than he had been when she had stormed out of the house a year before. Greyer, sickly-looking, reduced in height by a stoop. She was flash with pity. Oh Dad! All the words she had hurled at him that night returned, claps on her mind. He smiled when he saw her, strode across the foyer and pulled her into a hug.
“My daughter,” he said.
Oh Dad! He smelled as he always had. Of camphor. Of newspapers. Of ambition. He had always been her favorite parent. He had taught her how to stand on one leg and point at her nose. He had explained menses and the use of sanitary towels because her mother thought that was dirty talk. He had made her kneel at the airport and placed his hand on her head in blessing. He had flown ten thousand kilometres to collect her off a bathroom floor in New York.
“I understand,” he whispered
And then he surprised her by vigorously shaking Lutola’s hand and saying, “Good, good. You must be a good friend. My daughter has never let us meet her friends.”
Apologetic for not having time to talk just then, he ushered the priest and his altar boy into the living room, his movements awkward. She was a whirlpool of emotions as they settled around the living room, facing Father Martin’s improvised altar – the dining table dressed in white. Her father’s head was bowed, his shoulders lowered. She felt guilty for not asking her mother or Felix what was ailing him. She was not God. She should never have judged him.
But her mother was glaring at her and at Lutola, even as the priest called them all to a union with God.
Mukeni remembered being thirteen, when she’d started losing her mind. She’d asked to see a therapist, a counselor, anyone to help her get a hold of her mind. But what had her mother said? “This will always be on your records. People will think something is wrong with you.”
That was the most important thing in her family: appearances. Her father was ill, but had he come out and apologized or tried to make amends? No. He’d always insist on his innocence, just as he had that night, one year before: “Business is about risks. Those people knew they were taking a risk.”
“Someone committed suicide, Dad. Suicide.”
“The world is full of mental people. Everyone should know his limits.”
Mental people. She’d thought about these words over and over. She was the mental people her father held with such high contempt. She tried to swallow her anger now, but it burned and burned and brought an ache to her jaw.
“Go as far away as you like, but you cannot wash family out of your blood,” her mother had said.
In the present, everyone’s voice was raised in response when Beatrice led the responsorial psalm. Then, they sat for the priest’s forty minutes teaching about love and the value of family. Lutola was attentive all through. He cast a smile her way every few minutes and, once, reached out to squeeze her hand. She hoped her smile back looked real.
“Sis,” said No as they pounded fists, giving each other the sign of peace.
He was the happy one in the family, No. Even as a baby he had seemed tickled by some private joke and would crack up in his crib all alone. Mukeni felt sad that their parents had managed to box him into a medical degree. He should have been a programmer or, even better, a game designer.
And after all the damage he had done, her father knelt and opened his mouth and received the white wafer of communion from Father Onesmus, then clasped his hands and whispered into them, eyes shut. Witnessing this, the words of the various hymns fell out of Mukeni like balls of lead, and her scalp began itching under her weave despite the olive oil spray she had doused it in that morning. God had forgiven her father, her father, after what he did? The mockery of it.
When Father Onesmus declared mass concluded, Mukeni rose and left the house by the front door. Lutola found her standing among the Jacarandas, arms folded over her chest.
“Let’s go,” she said.
“Just like that?”
“Yeah, right now,” she said, then toned down and added, “Please.”
“But that’s rude, Mukeni. Let’s at least say goodbye to your parents.”
“Why do you care what they think?”
He looked left and right in that male way of exaggerated frustration.
“Look, I get it, you and I are not anything right now, but I am a person too. And I am not going to treat your parents like that.”
He went back inside. Imagining all the fake pleasantries he was about to spew, Mukeni followed him.
Father Onesmus had divested himself of his vestments and was now in a black cassock, chatting with her parents and Felix. His altar boy was packing the chalice away in a small briefcase. Mukeni went up to him as Lutola shook hands with No and Beatrice.
“I have a question about the sermon, Father,” said Mukeni loudly enough to stop all conversation.
Her mother gave her a warning look. Her father gave her a look.
“You said, Father, that God put us in families by design. That we are meant to love and lift each other.”
“Indeed, my child. This is the will of God.”
“But what if I know my family member has murdered someone, which is greater then? My duty before God to condemn sin or my duty to love?”
The crease between the priest’s eyes indicated that he realized she was trying to entrap him, to entrap God.
“Can we not condemn sin and still love the sinner?”
“Can we? Even a murderer? Is that what God is like?”
“Mukeni,” growled her mother.
“No, let her,” said her father. “My daughter needs to let some things out. Father, you understand.”
Mukeni overflowed. “To hell with all this,” she said, taking up her things. “To hell with all of you and may God judge you mercilessly.”
She heard Lutola call her as she stepped out of the gate but did not stop. She walked maybe a kilometer before he slowed the Mercedes next to her and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Please get in,” he said.
“It’s going to rain,” he said.
“Let me just drop you at your place, at least,” he said.
The rain started almost as soon as she was in the car, fat raindrops plonking on the windshield and getting thrown off by the wipers. The car’s aircon was running full blast to stop the windshield from misting over. A cocoon of things unsaid. Shards lodged in the throat. The inevitable rushing towards them as they covered the kilometres.
“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching for his hand across the car console.
He did not take his hand away, but she could not read his expression, and the realization that what they had was over made her heart beat wildly and painfully.
“He conned people. A lot of people,” she blurted.
Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Johannesburg Review of Books, Fireside Quarterly, Wasafiri, Waxwing, Jalada, New Daughters of Africa and others. She runs the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop and recently published the workshop’s first anthology, Digital Bedbugs. The Good Girls and The City is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.
Ndinda Kioko and Makena Onjerika appear in conversation in the second issue of drr, Ritual out August 10th 2020. Order a copy here.