The JRB presents a new short story by Troy Onyango.
First, he plucks a small part of himself and folds it in half, folds it again into a trapezium and presses it down. Then, he pinches the longer edge and pulls the insides outwards, leaving him exposed. He folds and unfolds, inwards and outwards until he is a beautifully shaped thing that is half-formed when looked at from the sides, but complete when looked at from the top (no one ever looks from the top). In the end, he hands it over to the lover; a gift to the person his fist-shaped heart has taught him to love. He has fallen in love in the way people make paper into origami—slowly, beautifully, with hands full of paper cuts.
He watches the lover fiddle with it—fingering it curiously, turning it over, upside down—in an attempt to figure it out (what exactly is it?) and he lies there, waiting for something, but, once again, the lover has forgotten to give something in return. He props himself up on the bed, tucks his hands under his head like a pillow and watches the ceiling with its shadows from the fluorescent light bulb. He wonders what specifically it is that he likes about this person whom he cannot, whatever he tries, get to love him back in equal measure (if anything of that sort exists). Perhaps it is that the lover is beautiful—with turmeric-coloured skin—or maybe because they speak Lingala with a French-suffused accent (or is it the other way around?), or that they have shown him affection in ways no one has before. They are both silent.
There are songs in his heart he cannot remember, like the keys to a lost door.
‘Let’s go dancing!’ he suggests, even though he prefers to stay at home and watch pirated movies on his old Toshiba computer. He is thirty-five—almost thirty-six—and had lost any hope of finding a suitable partner when the lover came into his life, via a monochromatic semi-nude photo posted on Instagram with the caption, ‘Live ur best lyf. Luv’ followed by a dozen emojis, and then an Instagram message he does not remember.
He has learnt to bend and fold himself into shapes that fit the needs of the lover, still young and brimming with life.
The lover agrees to the idea of dancing with delight—Oui!—and jumps off the bed, straight into the bathroom. He lies there, listening to the water from the showerhead and he imagines the droplets of water falling on the lover’s body, imagines them clinging to the lover’s skin, and he is filled with sudden lust and there is a stirring in his loins. He ignores it. He listens to other sounds. The Seventh Day Adventist choir on his neighbour’s radio, three doors down. Upstairs, there is a couple making love noisily (Harder! Right there! You will kill me with too much sweetness!). There is a child screaming outside (I want my mother!) and he wonders why there is always a child screaming outside at night (surely it is 10pm and all children should be asleep). A car hoots in the distance and a dog responds with a vicious bark; another howls in a prolonged, weak cry that sounds like the wail of a bereaved widow.
He gets off the bed and walks towards the kitchen, stopping to pick up yellow and green scraps of paper that he uses to make a duck. He does not go to the kitchen. Instead, he tries the door of the bathroom and finds it locked. He stands by the door and plays with the duck. When the lover comes out of the bathroom, he is waiting by the door, and they kiss, his eager tongue darting into the open mouth of the lover, and he says, ‘I love you more than anything, don’t you know?’
The lover nods without saying anything.
Inside the bathroom, he cries so much he shakes and the water feels hot against his skin. He lathers his body with perfumed soap and forgets to wash some of it off. He uses a towel marked with the lover’s scent and dries his body. He walks out of the bathroom to find his phone ringing, and when he picks it up from the bed and sees it is his mother calling, he lets it ring into silence and promises to call her back tomorrow. The lover asks him who it is, and he says, ‘No one. No one.’
Two hours later, the taxi arrives. They get in and sit in silence at the back and watch the driver, while simultaneously glancing at each other as if they have only just met. The driver watches them through the rear-view mirror. They notice his gaze on them. He is a small man with large eyes and he drums his index finger on the steering wheel as they drive down Waiyaki Way. A matatu brakes sharply in front of him and he swerves so as not to hit it. He curses in a language neither of them has heard before, then erupts into a fit of dry laughter that sounds like the cackling of a famished hyena. They both join in, even though only the driver knows what the insult he has hurled at the bus driver means.
The car stops. He gets out after the lover and gives the driver a crisp one-thousand shilling note. The driver says he has no change and asks him if he has a smaller note. He says he doesn’t. They stare at each other with the silent question of what to do next, each having no suggestions on how to proceed. He remembers he has some money in his account. He asks the driver if he can send the fare to him via M-Pesa. The driver is quiet for a moment, his large eyes motionless, as if he wants to refuse, but he nods and asks him to send the fare together with the withdrawal charges. He sends the fixed amount, ignoring the driver’s plea for more, and walks away, holding the lover’s hand, feeling the warmth of the clasp.
Up the stairs of a club with neon lights that flash blue, green, red and pink. Garden of Eden, the blue and pink flash. A burly bouncer with a star-shaped scar on his face pats him lightly from shoulders downwards, lingering on his crotch. He looks around, ignoring the large, brutal hand touching him. They walk in. At the counter, they buy drinks from a smiling lady with a scar that is like the map of a country that disappeared into the sea. They walk past the bodies gyrating on the dance floor. The heat is oppressive and he blinks away the sweat forming on his eyelids. Wizkid sings about a girl with a bum-bum bigger than Bombay. He wonders how big Bombay is (although now they call it Mumbai; they replaced ‘Bomb’ with ‘Mum’ and ‘y’—why?—with ‘i’). He hopes that someday the lover and he will take a trip to India.
The lover is walking right behind him, stopping to hug and say hello to a few familiar faces. He ignores everyone and finds a place close to the large window and they sit. From there, he can see the stretch of the street below. Tom Mboya Street. He was not supposed to be shot like that, he thinks. Killed on his way from a pharmacy! A matatu hoots and he turns to the drinks in front of him. Cold Tusker. Beads of sweat dripping down the brown bottles. Sweat glistening on the exposed skin of the boys and girls dancing. He takes a sip. The beer tastes like camel piss, or what he imagines camel piss tastes like.
He is up on his feet. He does not know if he is dancing or just standing, but he knows he is no longer sitting. Fally Ipupa is singing. Bakandja. The lover is dancing. He dances too. They both love Fally, the way he sings as if he is ordained by the God of Music, the way he dances like he wants to seduce the whole world. They dance together, so close to each other, as if they wish to be fused into one. They have listened to this song so many times; he knows the words by heart. He knows it is about Blessed Isidore Bakanja, the devout Congolese. Killed for sharing his Christian faith! The lover taught him the words. ‘Tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian.’
He would need to learn Lingala if they are to move to Kinshasa—Kin la Belle—someday.
‘I am not from Kinshasa. I come from Lubumbashi,’ the lover laments.
He ignores the lover and continues to search for images of Kinshasa on Google. He sees the large road that splits the city into two halves; the tall buildings that look hastily built; the blue water in which the city’s reflection appears clearly, as if there is another city underneath. He falls in love with a city he has never been to. He imagines spending his days along the river, dressed in a green Ankara suit and dancing to ndombolo music.
Ah, with the lover, of course!
Someone, a boy or girl with a head full of locked hair, joins them and dances with the lover. He steps back and watches the lover’s waist become rubber and the Someone has their hands around the lover’s waist. He is jealous and ashamed. He wishes he could dance like that. As a teenager, he used to love Koffi Olomide, and he would tie his mother’s leso around his waist and try to dance to soukous, imitating the dancers in the videos.
The lover pulls him and asks him to dance with them, but he prefers to stand there like a dejected loner and watch them dance. The beauty of the scene could be a painting hanging on the walls of a museum.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’
He realises he is being addressed by a short girl in baggy boys’ clothing; the one who has been dancing with the lover. He looks down at his hands and notices he has folded his napkin into a paper plane. He is slightly embarrassed, and he sits on a low stool so that their eyes are now at the same level, and he turns his face away from her, looks at the city down below: at the cars rushing past, at the three street boys dancing shaku shaku, at the drunk boys getting out of a taxi shouting, ‘This city cannot hold us!’
He feels her touch on his shoulder and he recoils, for he is not used to the touch of strangers (however well intentioned). He should be used to it by now, after years of going to crowded places with drunks and horny people, but he still finds the touches of strangers repulsive. The only touch he is responsive to is the lover’s touch. He pinches the right wing of the paper bird and tears it off. She is still there, still waiting for him to answer, still insistent with her touch.
He does not know the answer, or if he knows, he has forgotten how to retrieve it and shape it into something he can hand over to this stranger. He has always known how to do this. Other children played with clay, with tin, with wood, but he has always played with paper; folding it into whatever he wanted it to be. Paper boats floating on the green sewer water, soaking up but never sinking. An aeroplane to carry his dreams to a land so far away. A bird to whisper his secrets. A butterfly to make him less lonely. He has never seen them merely as paper, preferring instead to name them as soon as they spring to life between his fingers.
‘Origami,’ she announces, but her voice is carried away by the sound of music playing loudly, swallowed by the shouts of joy from the drunkards dancing, and he only catches the trail, the echo of her words. Of course he knows what it is called. The Indian man who came to their primary school gave a name to the thing he had been doing for so long, and for the first time he felt like there was meaning to his playing with the paper (not merely paper!).
‘I learnt it on YouTube,’ he confesses, at last, so he can get rid of her.
‘No way!’ she exclaims, as if she has detected his lie.
He gulps his beer and gets up, craning his neck to see if he can find the lover in the crowd of revellers dancing to Runtown’s Mad Over You. He loves the song but he must find the lover. He pushes past the sticky, sweaty people and looks for the lover everywhere. He asks someone if they have seen the lover. The person ignores him and continues dancing. He asks the smiling woman with a scar on her face. She says she will only tell him if he buys her a drink. He turns and finds the girl who was asking him about the origami.
‘Are you looking for your lover?’
He walks past her, straight into the bathroom, straight into his lover’s arms around someone else. He watches them kiss, watches their lips lock in such fierce passion he feels envious. He ignores the sensation in his loins, clears his throat but no sound comes out, and they continue to kiss while everyone else seems to act like it is a normal thing. He walks out of the club, past the bouncer, down the stairs, into the backseat of a taxi and he begs the driver, ‘Take me home.’
When the taxi driver tries to talk to him, he bursts into tears and closes his eyes. He feels small and worthless, and he wonders why fate led the lover into his life. The sounds of the city are the screeches of a pack of wounded animals. He pushes his index fingers into his ears. The window is open, and the wind blows against his face and he can smell the staleness of fruitless love. His chest hurts, his bones ache with the pain of being crushed with a sledgehammer, and his sorrow spreads beneath his skin, scalding him, as if it is hot bubbling oil coursing through his veins and arteries. He folds himself, hiding the tender parts, taking the softest parts and keeping them inside. He wants to forget all about falling in love.
He pays the taxi driver and forgets to ask for his change.
Certain things cannot be written down, cannot be described in stories, and the pain he feels is one of them.
There is a knock on his door, and even before he opens his eyes he knows that he does not want to open it. But he gets out of bed, dragging his feet slowly over the faded Persian rug he bought from a second-hand dealer in Gikomba. He does not remember what time he fell asleep, but he can tell he has been knocked out for a while because outside the sky is the colour of wet, damp ash and the early morning cold finds its way into the room when he opens the door.
‘You left without me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he apologises but the voice is an echo. He is always apologising, even when he knows he should not.
He locks the door and turns to find the lover undressing to get into bed. He lurches forward, grabs and kisses the lover so tenderly and with such longing it as if they have not seen each other in a long time. He tastes the treachery in the lover’s mouth and wonders if the lover can taste his sorrow and loneliness. He pushes the lover on the bed and lies on top, his weight pinning them onto the mattress, their skin pressed close and the throbbing desire within him beckoning. He presses, presses, presses further down.
The lover asks him to stop—s’il vous plait—tafadhali!—but he pushes himself in and a scream that sounds like a gasp escapes the lover’s mouth. He hears the sound of something fragile tear, and he feels himself fold, unfold, fold again as if it is not him and he does not know how to stop it from happening, and he thrusts with a rage he has not known to exist within him—a volcano hidden in the pits of his hollow darkness—and when the lover cries with a name that sounds like his, he closes his eyes, and sees the boats, the planes, the birds and the butterflies, all made of paper. He sees himself, too, painted with sharp streaks of yellow, violet, red and orange, but the paper used to make him is so weak it has started to age and fall apart. He cries. He hears a cry that is not his. It rains, the water falling in fat drops that feel like acid when they fall on his paper skin, and he soaks in that wetness and dissolves.
It is morning.
He reaches for the side of the bed and finds it is cold, the residual warmth always left by the lover’s body absent, gone. He opens his eyes and closes them again. He checks the clock. It is 9 am. He goes to the bathroom and washes the dried blood off the tip of his penis. He forgets to wash the rest of his body. He throws on a clean striped blue shirt and a pair of navy blue pants and he goes to church. The pastor talks about forgiveness and repentance. He walks away during the tithing ceremony and finds a shed to sit in. He tries to call the lover but their phone is off.
I’m sorry. He sends a text message.
A certain kind of sadness resides within the body and seeks for ways to be let out, to be freed. If left sealed within the body, it swells until the seams can no longer hold and then it bursts. He feels this melancholy deep within him as he walks on the narrow path that is the shortest route to his house. He wants to sit down—just a few minutes—and rest, but he knows he has to get home and wait to see if the lover decides to come back. He walks faster but he is merely floating in the wind, forgetting to make his feet touch the ground, forgetting to lift the right leg then the left.
At home, he makes himself some ugali and has it with stale beef stew that has a thick crust of solidified oil over it (when did he cook it?) and it is cold when he sits down to eat. The food tastes like grief and he throws it away. He turns the tap on to wash the dishes but only air comes out. He curses and slams the plate on the counter top. He sits on his bed and cradles his loneliness in his arms and rocks back and forth. He checks his phone for any messages or calls from the lover.
He goes to bed early, debating on whether to call in sick to work in the morning. He falls into a deep sleep and he sees nothing but darkness. When he wakes up, someone is knocking on his door. He gets out of bed and steps into cold water that startles him. He forgot to turn off the tap earlier, and now that the water is back, his floor is a pool. He opens the door and finds his neighbour standing there in her nightgown. She tells him that his house is flooded. He responds, ‘I know.’
He spends the rest of the night scooping water from the floor with a cup. By the time he is done, it is morning. He closes his eyes and wonders why he did not make paper boats and put them in the water instead of scooping it out. He goes back to sleep, a feverish kind of sleep in which he dreams that he is all alone in a dark place and he screams for someone, anyone, to let him out, but all he hears are echoes of laughter. His dream is not a dream. He opens his eyes to find his room engulfed in darkness and there is a man laughing outside his door. He leaps off the bed and checks through the window, and he sees the man’s mouth—canines that look like fangs, two-pronged tongue—but he cannot see the man’s face.
His phone rings, and when he picks it up, it is his mother and she asks him, ‘I’ve been calling and you never pick up. Are you avoiding me?’
‘No mum, I’d never do that,’ he says.
‘Have you eaten?’
‘Yes,’ he lies to her. His stomach grumbles in protest and he wonders why he lied.
‘Your father says you don’t call him anymore.’
‘I will call him tomorrow,’ he lies again. When is tomorrow?
‘You should visit. Surely, it has been three years.’
Three years. What connection is there between the passage of time and memory? He tries to remember three years ago. He fails. He tries to remember the present. He fails. Is it already three years into the future? He closes his eyes and tries to squeeze the memories. They rush past, like coloured electric currents, like the past and the future are one and the same, like he has forgotten who he is and he needs paper to remember what time and day it is. He ends the call without saying a word and picks up a purple sheet of paper. Purple is for purpose. He folds, unfolds, folds.
He picks up a white sheet of paper. White is for lack. He folds it into the purple. The lack of purpose. Was the lover the purpose? Was he living for nothing else than the lover? He is stung by the absence, and he feels as if a sharp blade has been lodged in his heart. Nothing holds meaning anymore, and the guilt is a chainsaw, grinding and eating him up from within. The pain strikes him hard, and he throws away the paper and it untangles; the purple away from him, near the food, and the white at his feet, with him. He checks his phone again.
It is Friday and he does not know where the days have disappeared. He gets into the shower and scrubs his body with his fingernails until there are marks on his chest like he was at war with a tiger. He wears a floral shirt and a pair of blue-black skinny jeans. He locks the door before realising he is barefoot, and when the taxi driver calls him, he is opening his door to go back inside his house. He puts on some white sneakers and rushes out.
He is back at the club again. He sits alone by the window and the girl with dreadlocks and baggy clothes walks up to him and asks, ‘Where is your lover?’
‘Where is yours?’ he snaps back, and she turns away as if to leave but doesn’t.
He sees the lover walk in and he gets up from his seat. Two steps. Three. Five. He is standing right in front of the lover.
‘Where have you been? I have been looking all over for you!’
‘Three years,’ the lover responds, and walks away to meet the girl with dreadlocks.
A fight breaks out and someone pushes him. He gets up and finds the bouncer standing in his way. He hears the smash of glass and the noise of the streets below. He sees the boys dancing. He hates the song playing. Someone shouts, ‘Whore!’ The sound of glass breaking again. He turns to see the lover carrying a broken bottle in their right hand. He feels something slimy and viscous spread on his face. He licks his upper lip, and the liquid tastes like blood, like metal, like nothing, like the whole world is paper and is folding in his hands.
- Troy Onyango’s work has been published in Wasafiri, AFREADA, Caine Prize Anthology, Brittle Paper and Transition, among other places. His short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ won the inaugural NALIF Prize. He was first runner-up in the 2018 Black Letter Media Competition, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been shortlisted for Brittle Paper Anniversary Award and Nonfiction. Currently, he is studying towards an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he is the recipient of a Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. He is working on a novel.