I’m reaching out again.
Here I am again, trying to recapture a lost past. I am writing to go back to that time at Impala Park, when it was just you and me and M, and we went to Impala Park, where at lunch times, as a treat, the wardens would throw a goat into the lion cages for people to watch. I remember your terror and your silence, and the shock of your tears, as the lions jumped onto their prey, and the fear in your eyes as the ground turned red with blood.
I think now of you turning away, and running, me and M trying to catch up with you, but you were so much bigger than us, so much faster.
April. Somewhere over Kisumu, dark clouds mass. Below them, we fight, you and I. You don’t hide your disdain for my work. You think I’m wasting my life. But it’s my life, I tell you, even though I know this is not true; it’s our life. You worry for me. Why am I wasting my time worrying about these things? The past is the past, you say. Now I am shouting. The past is the present. The present is the future. Don’t you see how all these things are connected. We are all of our pasts. My voice gets louder. Your voice is always soft, even in your anger. This is the white man’s burden, you say. Don’t make it your own. I frown. I don’t understand.
Do you remember Patricia? She taught at Kisumu Boys with Mum. I haven’t thought about her in years, but then one night I’m on the phone with M, who has moved to London and she is complaining about her new London student room, which overlooks a trainyard. She talks about the trains, and how loud they are, and says she hears them in her sleep, and says the men in the yard can see inside her window, and that there are three different tracks in the yard, and how all these noises interfere with her sense of being. As she talks about her trains, my mind goes away, and I remember another set of trains. I remember going to Kisumu Boys after my classes were done, and I’d sit in the staffroom until Mum was ready to go home. Sometimes, Patricia would come in, talk to me, ask me about my life, tell me about hers. We’d entertain each other.
Then she bought me a book. I don’t know if there were any books before this, or after. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this book and it was purple and it was about trains. On the first page, Patricia had written my name, then shaded it with a different hue of purple — I remember thinking how odd this was, the multiple iterations of purple.
I’ve forgotten how a lot of the story went. I can, at best, offer vague blocks of the book. It was about trains. There was a boy who liked trains. There was a girl, his sister. Marie. The boy and Marie would sit outside their house in the evenings, and watch out for the trains on the railroad that went by their house. Their house must have been one of the few ones on this particular line, because the train drivers knew them, the boy and his sister, and would sound their horns as they went by. The boy wanted to drive trains when he grew up. Marie liked fireflies, and the two of them would catch fireflies in jars once they were done watching out for trains. The boy knew the names of all the train services. He knew the train engines. At the end of the book, the boy’s uncle came home for dinner, and the twist at the end of the story was that this uncle was a train engineer, and he had brought the boy a gift, something connected with trains. I can’t remember what.
From the Luo, a beer drinking straw. From the Samburu, an armlet. Giryama crotal bells and a Maasai shield and a Kikuyu arrow and a Taita bowl and Kamba ear studs. In one corner of the box, a pair of ornate silver Borana knives. This is the first consignment.
I remember you asking me if I was a writer. We were sitting in your garden. The groundnuts were due, and we sat under a shade in the garden, on plastic chairs, separating the husks from the roots.
So, you are a writer?, you asked. Why haven’t I seen your name in the papers?
I’m not that kind of writer, I said. That’s a journalist. Me I don’t report news. I tell stories.
You looked at me over your glasses. So if I tell you my story, will you write it down?
Sawa, I was born in this year, and in that place. I have this number of children. My wife was killed. I still dream about her.
You think that Mum was murdered. It doesn’t matter that I present the facts to you. You believe what you want to believe. There was a work trip to France. Reward for years of good service to her school. Mum didn’t speak French. Could read it even less. What I say, and what the authorities say happened is that she was depressed and took the chance to do it on her own where there would have been no one to make her guilty. What you say is that this depression is a lie, that she was fine, happier than she’d ever been, excited to be going to France. That something happened in that museum, that something changed there. I tell you to stop with the conspiracy theories, that she obviously didn’t share anything with us, that she’d always been a closed soul that way, good at plugging everything in and stopping the leaks.
— but then here you are telling me about this forum you’ve discovered, that there are cases like this happening in Europe, of perfectly normal people being driven to take away their lives, that all these people were fine, before they entered a museum in Paris, in Amsterdam, in Berlin, in wherever, and then the next day they were overcome, that this is murder. That the things they touched in there are cursed. That they wanted penance. That their souls were the penance.
I don’t know what to say to you.
Instead, a memory. We are driving down to the village, me and you and M and Mum. Mum is driving. She drove mad fast. It’s a new car, the previous one was written off by the insurer. In Kendu Bay we stop to buy the papers and fill up the tank. The lake is winning the latest round of its battle with water hyacinth, and from the road we can see the shoreline where fishermen, early risers, are removing the fish from their boats. The water in the lake glistens in azure and cerulean hues, and above the colour, lazy gulls float in the wind. We drive past the little towns that dot the highway. Rakwaro and Kapiedo and K’onyango, whose former MP had been discovered dead in a bar. At Olare, I ask her if I can take over the driving for a bit, but she laughs me off, tells me, you, what do you know about this road?
I am reading Deborah Scroggins’s Emma’s War, and when I sleep, I dream that I am in Sudan in the middle of one of the civil wars. In my dreams, drumming like a visitation, is the line: “When I think of Nasir, I remember the sun. Nothing in that place escaped it.”
The same thing can be said about Mum. When I think about Mum, I remember the sun. Nothing in this place escapes her overwhelming brightness. Or is it escaped? The things of the past remain in the past. So, I’m thinking about Mum, and I’m thinking about Nasir, and I’m thinking about Tehran — I’ve been reading Azar Nafisi. I’m also thinking of Patricia, Mum’s friend, and how, when I was old enough, she introduced me to Kariara. I remember her and Mum crying together about him. It’s been fifteen years, and we are still waiting for the grass to grow. But I remember mum always: her laughter, her cheery hats, her brightness, her overwhelming urge to comfort us. Everyday, I remember her. Nothing escapes it.
I am going on my reporting week after next. What was that you used to tell us, M and I, after Mum was gone, and it was just the three of us? A river finds its home, you said. I am the river, dad, and I am finding myself. I don’t know how to assuage your worry. It is not my job to assuage your worry. I’m not thirteen anymore and crying because of your tears, offering myself as your beacon to happiness. It is not my fault that the further we go from Mum, the more you believe these theories, the more you discover forums where people are claiming that their relatives were killed by these objects. I must go. I hope you understand this. It is my job to record the return of these objects.
— and yet I acquiesce when you ask that I perform a small ceremony to protect myself before I go. Maybe I am a river and you are still my home. Here I am, your forever beacon. Kisumu in October is hot and sticky and the jacarandas are purple and in bloom and the mango tree outside is dropping its overripe fruit to the ground and I sit in your house and you give me something to drink — I don’t ask what it is but it tastes like ginger and garlic and anise seeds and osuga and other things I can’t place and it is red in colour and orange in smell. There are three men with you. They pray for me, their arms on my forehead. I don’t understand their languages, but I understand the rhythm of prayer. On a table behind you is a small picture of Mum, young and in a yellow dress and with an incredible smile on her face, and I wonder what she’d say if she saw the two of us now. But then she’s dead, and what she thinks doesn’t matter, and the objects are being returned, and I must protect myself because I am your home and you are mine.