Life Begins At 40: Ray Mwihaki

Poppy is forty. 

The air outside is sultry. It has been like this since the Anene sold our breath to the Railman. We are no longer allowed to draw on fogged glass windows. Other kids can do it but we can’t. Mummy and Poppy did something bad when they were younger.

“It’s Reeha and Mbwei who are paying for our insolence!” Poppy reminds Mummy from time to time. “They can’t even say chieth! in any language.”

The “But, did they die?” slips through Mummy’s lips in the very second she throws the saucer from under the cup she’s pressing against her lips. Tingilingili-ngili-ngili! The floor is surveyed by all but me. I look at the shattered ceramic that landed next to the painting I made for Poppy’s birthday—a rat in a pot, sitting next to the scene of the crime with her shoulder exposed. Tea is sipped. Everyone is silent. Poppy says she’s insolent but sweet. Just like her tea. She brews this special tea with dried octopus, marigolds and hibiscus every year on Poppy’s birthday. It kicks you in the throat with the sweetest nectar, and probes your nose with the devil’s pitchforks. We all have to drink it. It puts us to sleep but I don’t think it works quite the same way for them. It does not work as well on me as it did when I was younger. 

Last year, I barely slept. The orchestra of thuds, bumps and grunts kept reminding me that Poppy was thirty-nine with too little breath left to howl at the moon on his night. I wonder what tonight will sound like. Will the owls hoot like last year, or will they be missing in this year’s parade? 

I have gotten used to missing one more thing in my life every single day. Last year, we lost those beautifully fragile things that grow on plants before they turn to fruit. Those tu-things that people learn about at school, where all I hear is a yawning echo of static, like a whirlpool in a large cave, each time Teacher Bernice mentions their parts. We lost the things under cars, the ones that roll them forward, gurudu gurudu gurudu till where they are going. The scent of ripe pineapples is gone too. If it’s ripe, it will splatter on the floor and we’ll get on all fours and gobble up the tangy sweet flesh and its juices like the vampires of Tageta. If it’s not, we’ll still get on our knees and eat it up, albeit with much less enthusiasm. Some fruits are completely gone. We can’t see them, smell them, taste them, feel them. We can’t do anything with them. They sit in the pile at home or at stalls in the market, all grey trypophobic ash, which makes us avert our gaze. Wherever they are, the scents of the little vortexes opening up into the different dimensions of hell assail us. If that doesn’t keep us from trying to taste or touch them, we lose something else. A feeling. A thought. A fruit. A scent. A thing. Anything. They don’t know what. 

Mbwei will never know what I lost before he was born.

Poppy is forty now. He was thirty-nine last year, and, in the last twenty years, he hasn’t learnt anything new. He hasn’t got any maendeleo from Anene since. His driver’s license booklet still has his faded brown face with a smirk on it. On the picture, his hair is spiky at the top, with nothing on the sides. Mommy teases him about that fade all the time. 

“Poppy walks into the kinyozi…” She bounces into the living room with Poppy’s grandfather’s godpapa on her head. In one swift motion, she slips the hat off her head, settles into Poppy’s favourite chair, and winks at him. “Fade, my guy! Like the ninja on the tinker tinker tin- ker TV. You feel me?” Her head swings from side to side to emphasise each and every word she says after ninja. 

Poppy either sips his tea or leaves the room to make some. Every-single-time. He still has some sass left. He still has a spring in his step and still wears that smirk like he just sold fifty kilos of fake gold to an unsuspecting millionaire for the fifth time in a row. I know every furrow that has formed on that face for the past twelve years has made him more Poppy than the Poppy before the last one formed. I know we lose something every time one appears. What I don’t know is how much breath he has left.                                    

The fade is gone and so is his hair. Baldness runs in the family. We expect Mbwei to be bald by the time he’s twenty-five. He is nine now, but the rate at which his curiosity is growing, how much Poppy smokes, and things going before he’s even had a chance to know them, I am not sure he will make it to twenty-five. I’m not sure I’ll see twenty-five either. Mommy and Poppy only had so much breathe given to them by the Railman when their deal with the Anene was done. Then we took some of their breathe away. Khai! I’d never thought of that before. 

I might soon be gone. Even death is an easier escape than getting sucked into the vortex of nothingness where the mere sight of me sends shivers down the beholder’s spine. Me, a kind of split second jehanamu unlocked just by glancing my way. I cannot go before Mommy is sixty. We agreed! I’ll be married at thirty-eight. Mommy will walk me down the aisle. Poppy will be gone. 

He smokes, you know.

To read this story in full, order a copy of the drr issue of Ritual here.

Ray Mwihaki loves to play with plants, paint, words and wax. She spends her time samplingfermented brews, going for random walks in fantastical places, indulging toddlers and taking every opportunity to avoid leaving her house.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.