The JRB presents a new short story by Makena Onjerika.
Our housegirl Scolastica only ever wore a loose dress indoors—one of the five such dresses she owned, hand-me-downs from a once pregnant relative, we suspected. They all had holes in them, and Maami had had conversations with her about turning them into floor rags and wearing her better clothes, but Scola thought her dresses perfectly serviceable. She ventured outside to our building’s communal taps in these dresses, after only marginally improving them by tying a leso around her waist and reining in her breasts with a bra. But even then, the old pair of beige stockings she wore over her head to protect her hair at night stayed on and did not come off unless she had to go outside the building’s gate to the general store to buy soap or perhaps steel wool. For that short trip she wore her Bata slippers and never shoes.
Then came four o’clock, time to go grocery shopping at the market, and Scola transfigured. Going into our shared bedroom in the stocking and tattered dress, she emerged smelling of buttery Limara lotion, her face Vaselined and powdered and her blow-dried hair falling straight to her shoulders. With a sharpened eye pencil (wetted on her tongue) she pressed a Marilyn Monroe beauty spot just above her upper lip. The rag-dress morphed into an ironed, shy-of-the-knees skirt and floral blouse. And out came the short, red patent leather pumps she had inherited when Maami had last cleaned out her wardrobe. She did not look like she had anything to do with housework, and we, walking by her side, could have been her darling children.
Scola would never admit it to herself, but she liked leading men on. At every store, barbershop, market stall on our street, she had left behind a false name at one time or another: Alice, Faith, Maggie, Beatrice, so many names. Of course, anyone who wanted to know could have easily found out exactly where she lived and her real name, but she enjoyed sprinkling these names about, and we played along, refusing to reveal anything about her to men even when they offered us sweets and other bribes.
These men said things to her as we walked to the market, and we felt a certain measure of pride, as if she were our creation. She thought her hand-holding was keeping two naughty children from wandering off among the market stalls, but it was actually we who were parading her about and flashing triumphant smiles at everyone we encountered: children with less beautiful caretakers, women who stared longingly at her wasp waist, and men who we understood wanted a certain something from her. Whatever it was, we did not care. She was ours. Our Scola. And we would not let them have her.
Scola returned greetings for greetings, smiled when appropriate, laughed at things we did not find funny and took the extra grams of meat the butcher always added to her order. One vegetable seller (who wore a wedding band, we noted) had even whispered to her that she surely was a temptation sent by the devil, a black beauty.
‘Shindwe,’ she said, binding the devil on his tongue in the name of Jesus Christ, but still, every day she went to buy tomatoes and sukuma wiki from him and laugh at his weak jokes. Did she enjoy this banter? Absolutely. The attention made her walk a certain way that gave her buttocks the effect of rolling.
‘Let the fools stare,’ we heard her say to the other housegirls in our building. ‘I would never believe anything a man says.’
To this the housegirls made sounds of agreement and then burst out with inexplicable laughter, giving each other high fives and secret glances.
Scola had a compact but powerful body. When she was in the kitchen kneading chapati dough, her arms and shoulders worked like pistons, rising, rolling, falling, pounding. She squeezed soapy water out of our clothes as though wringing life out of a small animal. And when she delivered a slap across our faces to arrest some misbehaviour, we felt all her might—our jaws shook, our ears rang and tears escaped the corners of our eyes. Only strangers were not aware of how lethal she was.
The local electronics repairman found out hardly two weeks after he opened a shop on our street. He was quite idle at the time, as the residents of the various buildings nearby were still debating whether to entrust him with their clocks, kettles, televisions. Not that adults cared about the opinions of children, but he did not look trustworthy to us: too thin, hair in an unkempt afro, clothes creased, a cigarette always on his lips and moving like a conductor’s baton when he spoke, teeth a chromatography of browns and yellows. But we forgave him his shortcomings when he started giving us the occasional shilling to buy chalky Patco sweets at the general store. The shilling had to be earned, however. Either Kim or I had to run the twenty steps from his shop to the general store to purchase two sticks of Sportsman cigarettes on his behalf. The arrangement worked sweetly for a whole week until the general store owner (whom we henceforth referred to as Big Mouth) whispered a few words to Scola.
We saw her coming like a train off its rails. She snatched each of us up by the ear, out of a game of Banoo that we were winning, and matched us to the electronics repair shop.
‘You, come here,’ she shouted into the shop’s gaping cavity.
The man stepped out, stunned yet smiling, eyes blinking at the midday sun blazing over our street. Perhaps already guessing at his misdemeanour, he decided to sweet-talk her: ‘What is it, Mrembo?’
He, being new, did not know about Scola’s bad days, when she walked around with a face like crumpled newspaper. On such days she slapped us awake if we dilly-dallied in bed for even a minute. She smelled of iron and rotten meat and walked with her feet slightly apart. We heard her vomit in the toilet and watched her knead her stomach and talk to the walls. Later, we understood that what she really wanted to do was to yank out her uterus and stomp it to death. For three days every month, her stomach rumbled at the slightest contact with food; merciless diarrhoea poured out of her; her body boiled with vitriol.
It was on one such day that the electronics repairman called her Mrembo, the beautiful one.
‘Shindwe! Get behind me, Satan,’ she said. ‘Whose children are you trying to corrupt with your dirty habits?’
‘Listen now, madam. Don’t talk to me anyhowly.’
‘Because who are you? I will talk to you the way I want, Ibilisi.’
The electronics repairman was usually a calm and level-headed man, we knew. But now he seemed dumbfounded and afraid: a crowd was already amassing outside his shop. He coughed and seemed to remember he was a polytechnic graduate and that he was dealing with an undereducated housegirl; he had an arsenal of English vocabulary at his disposal and now reached for it.
‘Listen, you ignoramus house manager.’ He shook his finger in Scola’s face as if she were one of us, a child. ‘You will give me respect. Me and you are not equivalent.’
Heads swivelled towards Scola. We saw her gather herself up in a manner we knew all too well, like a cumulonimbus cloud eating the sun. She untied and re-tied the leso around her waist. She clapped her hands and laughed, he he he he. She squared her shoulders and let loose. We would later recount to our friends all the insults she heaped on the man, from dog without a tail, to undercooked potato, to emaciated frog to someone’s mother’s behind. She said his face was like a kettle. Mr Electronics Repairman looked like a tree doing its best to hold onto its leaves in a mighty storm. Afterwards, he would not let Kim and me anywhere near his shop, not even when we required his services for a toy car we had taken apart and could not put back together.
‘That one will never find a husband,’ we heard the other housegirls say when Scola was not around.
We pitied them. They were uglier women. And what did Scola need a husband for? She had Baraza from Tausi. He was square chinned, he carried a voice like a drum in his chest, and his appearance on the TV screen always forced a certain sound out of her throat, something between chortling and choking.
‘That Baraza, mmmhh, that Baraza is a man, not like these boys and their weak greetings on the street, without anything to show a woman,’ we heard her say to the other housegirls.
We married them to each other, two mud dolls, during our games of ChaMama.
‘You are the only bean in my githeri. When I see you, I feel electricity,’ Baraza said to Scola.
She giggled and slapped his arm: ‘Stop Baraza, there are children here.’
And then they kissed and lived happily ever after. (Although Scola made us shut our eyes when people kissed on TV and switched it off at the merest suggestion of clothes coming off.)
We only knew three things about Scola’s life before she came to us: her entire education had consisted of six years in primary school; she was the eldest of ten siblings; and her mother had passed on when she was twelve. Only later did we learn that she spent a large portion of her four thousand shilling salary on paying school fees for her younger siblings.
We certainly did not imagine that Scola had any desires other than making our meals, washing our clothes, corralling us into the bathroom for our evening baths and roughly attacking our bodies with a loofah, pinching us when we took too much blanket at night in our shared bed, staring down anyone, child or adult, who dared make us cry, gossiping with the other housegirls in our building, and sitting with her legs apart as she demolished a mound of ugali and fried beef.
Then one day, a year or two after the electronics repairman’s business failed and he closed shop, a man stopped his Datsun pick-up beside us as we left the market. When he leaned away from his steering wheel and towards the open passenger-side window, we gave him the customary glares we reserved for strange men.
‘Scolastica, is that you?’ he said.
Scola squinted at him for a moment, and then—just like that—her stern walking-face broke, and she was smiling, more than half her teeth on display. She suddenly seemed not to know what to do with her body; she swung her arms, then held them behind her back, then put them to work in wide gestures.
‘Njoseph? How are you in this Nairobi?’
He was the ugliest man we had ever seen—a bulbous nose, a forehead like a playing field, a prominent Adam’s apple like a piece of stolen fruit he could never swallow down—but he smiled without feeling ashamed of that face.
‘You are going that way?’ he asked. ‘Come I give you a lift.’
And before we could protest or remind Scola of Maami’s strict instructions about entering strangers’ vehicles, we found ourselves sandwiched between them in the small cabin.
There were ghosts of smells in there; things we could not identify; sinister things, we were sure. We gave Scola desperate glances, but she noticed nothing, not even when the man forcefully applied his hand onto the gear-stick and dragged it mercilessly from position to position, and his pick-up groaned in protest.
‘I have been working for their mother for five years,’ she was saying.
‘But you housegirls are very strong ladies,’ he said.
‘It is what one must do to survive.’
The pick-up swam through a pothole of muddy water that had bitten off a large chunk of the street, and we found ourselves thrown closer to Mr Ugly.
‘I have been doing business with my uncle. Distribution,’ he said.
His breath was sour. How could Scola not smell it?
‘So you are swimming in money, eh?’
‘If only. You know how it is in this Nairobi. Sometimes we go up, sometimes we go down. But it is better than being employed and being given little, little money for a lot of work.’
Scola placed her elbow on the open window and sighed. ‘It’s true. I want to do tailoring, but you know …’ She rubbed her thumb and index finger together to indicate money.
We looked at her with open mouths. And who would be our housegirl if Scola became a tailor? When the man let us off at our building, we walked away, sullen and disturbed, while Scola lingered to talk some more nonsense. We were sure something terrible had happened in that pick-up, but we did not know what.
‘Ehe, and who was that?’ we heard the other housegirls ask Scola the next day.
‘It was just a lift.’
‘Just a lift is how it begins.’ They rolled their eyes at Scola and laughed.
We worried and whispered to each other. We knew something was coming. But we must have forgotten after a while. At six and eight, we were planets ricocheting off each other and into Maami’s furniture and glass utensils. We talked as if at risk of running out of words. There was always something naughty wiggling its way out of our bodies. We sparked with static, we rolled in the dust, we chased after the free-range chickens wandering about on our street, we fired insults at one another and our friends with the suddenness of a machine gun execution. We were too consumed with ourselves.
So we were metaphorically flung to the ground one Sunday evening, when we saw Scola, returning from her day off, alight from the Datsun pick-up. The yellow afternoon lay on the padded shoulders of a silky floral dress she had not owned the day before, and … was that lipstick on her lips?
Things we had only noticed subconsciously came into focus. When had Scola last pinched us, or called us crankshaft? Of late, we realised, she had not been paying us much attention. The enemy waved at us as he drove off and we understood. Our Scola had been stolen from us.
When we took our concerns to Maami, she patted us on the head—a promise that she would restore order in our small lives—then summoned Scola to her bedroom and shut the door firmly in our faces.
In our memories, Scola never emerged from that room. When we awoke a tangle of limbs in our bed the next day, her half of the wardrobe was empty. We went through our house calling her name, but she was gone, and Maami would not tell us where or why.
The succession of new housegirls Maami brought home after this suffered the consequences of the frustration corkscrewed into our bodies. We wet the bed, we ate only when Maami stood over us, counting spoonfuls, we wandered further down the street than she allowed and went missing for hours, we reappeared with clothes so muddy bleach could not redeem them, we stole money from the kitchen kitty, we screamed, we pounded each other with our fists, we took turns howling and falling sick. Neither Maami’s leather belt nor her grave looks of disappointment could tame us. Even we did not understand why we allowed ourselves to continually fall off cliffs like the Coyote, and explode, and repeatedly die under the crushing weight of oversized anvils and rocks, compulsively chasing a Roadrunner we would never catch.
‘The only one who could handle those little monsters was Scola,’ the building’s housegirls said to each of her replacements.
‘And what happened to her?’
We leaned in too, sure that this time we would learn the truth, but always we were spotted, and their voices fell to whispers.
For months on end, we wanted Scola to margarine our bread and slap us on the backs of our head for spilling grains of rice as we ate. Where was her cruel mockery about how thin and elongated we were, like giraffes? Scola, let us braid your hair into mounds of matuta. Scola, remind us again that the path to heaven is narrow and that we are surely headed to hell’s lake of fire. Laugh the way you do, Scola, like boiling water, and throw your arms about. The sorrow of her absence was like porridge sitting heavily in our bellies. But over time, we digested it and began to forget her.
Then there was a knock. We tumbled over each other to get to the door, and who should we find there but Scola, smiling. A tailor somewhere had done a great injustice to her kitenge cloth, cutting it into an ambitious, misshapen dress. Or had she fulfilled her dream and made the dress herself? She carried a plastic bag full of bread, packets of milk, sugar, a tin of Blueband margarine and sweets, as if she had been away for just a brief period, wandering the shops of the world to ensure we would never count among the African children she’d always warned us were starving while we ungratefully played around with our food. The hurt returned, as sharp as before. We would not take her gifts; we cried; we hated her; we were unwilling to let her step back into our lives so easily.
‘Why?’ we demanded.
‘Look how tall and round you have grown.’
‘Why did you leave us?’
‘Have you been good and obedient to your mother?’
‘Why? Why? Why, Scola?’
And then we saw the ugly man and the bundle of soft blankets he carried in his arms. We panicked and fled back into the house, into the space between the sofa set and the wall unit.
‘What is it?’ said Maami, going to the door.
It was a meeting of long-separated friends, a melding of bodies in tight hugs. Maami ululated as she took the bundle from the ugly man. The thing inside the blankets wiggled and let out a small sound like a cat.
‘Come in, come in. Sit down, please,’ said Maami, and shouted for Scola’s tenth replacement to bring the Quencher juice and brew some tea on the gas cooker.
We watched all this from our hiding place, clasping our hands and feeling despair, then anger, then horror, then wonder.
‘Come here and greet your Auntie and Uncle,’ commanded Maami, looking ready to pinch us.
Our feet refused. This was not our Scola. Look what she had gone and done. How plump she was. And her hair, was it under that plastic-looking weave? Why did her lipstick seem garish and excessive? And there was that man sitting expansively in Maami’s favourite sofa, roaming his eyes over our photographs and the special, guest-only dishes on display in the wall unit. Sitting as if he owned everything and shaking one leg.
‘They have forgotten me,’ said Scola. She gave us a small smile that only lifted one side of her mouth, as if we were making her sad.
‘You don’t want to hold my baby?’ she asked.
No, we did not. We wanted nothing to do with her, it, or him. Not even when our new housegirl placed plastic cups of precious Quencher juice on the table. Not even when she topped that with a plate of sugar-flecked Nice biscuits, and we had to watch the ugly man munching them down while we pretended not to want any.
‘She is so pretty,’ said Maami, reaching a finger into the blankets. She was smiling the soothing smile she reserved for us when we did good. We could not just stand by and allow the little creature to steal her too. We drew closer to her, to remind her that we were her children, but there was a sweet scent emanating from the blankets. Which of us peeked first?
The baby was as fat as dough. She opened her mouth in an ‘O’ and put out a small pink tongue. What large, black eyes she had. What a small nose, like fruit. Her skin was as delicious as toffee; we thought of pinching it to test its elasticity. How cutely she opened and shut her eyes, struggling against sleep. We touched the silken hair stuck to her scalp tenderly; we could not imagine hurting her. How subdued we became when she clutched our fingers in her small, soft hands.
‘See … now why were you afraid of her?’ asked Scola.
The baby’s name was Angela. Our Angela. Ours. And even though Maami and Scola would not let us feed her Quencher and biscuits or take her outside to show her off to our friends or use her as a doll in a game of ChaMama, she filled us with magnanimity.
When we looked up, we realised Scola was beautiful, in a different and mysterious way. We saw how her body could not help leaning in towards the ugly man as they sat side by side. And he was not too ugly, after all. When he spoke, his voice was kind, testing the edges of everything carefully. We saw the small smiles that escaped him when he glanced at Scola and at Angela. He slurped his tea quietly, setting his cup down again with a slightly shaking hand. And Scola was all laughter; she did not seem to know how to contain herself.
We loved them.
Then the day ended, and we stood outside our building waving at the Datsun pick-up and feeling forlorn. But we did not see Scola, or Angela, or the man after that, and we did not think about them either.
- Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing, is shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize and is a 2020 Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Adroit Journal, Fireside Quarterly, Wasafiri, Waxwing, Jalada, New Daughters of Africa, Doek!, DRR and others. She runs the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop and recently published the workshop’s first anthology, Digital Bedbugs. She writes both realist and speculative fiction.