The JRB presents a new short story by Kiprop Kimutai.
The Wood Carving
On the bus to Donholm, I sat next to a man who looked Ethiopian. He could have been a dark-skinned Arab or a Rendille. His eyes were blue and his forehead was furrowed as if he were a person with a lot of money to worry about. His jeans were old, striated with mud on the hems, and his sneakers ordinary, one toe-cap patterned with dust. I was entranced by the expression on his face as he spoke on phone, how his eyes grew softer and his voice saccharine. The person he was talking to had to be absolutely loved. By the time the bus broke through the traffic jam at Muthurwa the world had darkened. Our feet disappeared in pools of shadow and passengers on the other seats seemed distant. The man switched on the tiny LED light above him, and after slouching on his seat, asked if I could buy him more airtime through M-Pesa. I nodded and bought him two-hundred shillings worth. I got his number and name. Hasan and I were now bonded.
He alighted two stops from my destination, and I followed him. Watching him walk, I wondered how God could place a man with such tender eyes in Donholm. Donholm, with its dun-colored wattle stalls that sprouted out of nowhere to block the paths we used to get home: stalls from which hawkers sold bananas, sliced watermelons, shelled peas, avocados, cabbages, collard greens, terere, pilau mwitu, pilau njeri, githeri, chips fry, bhajia, matumbo fry, mutura, plastic dolls, rusted bicycle spare parts and camel milk. God allowing Hasan to be in Donholm was as strange as God letting a beautiful moon shine upon us.
Hasan entered the gate at Pearl Village and I walked on to my apartment. There was a blackout and the ground floor had flooded to my ankles. I despaired as I had planned to repeat my socks. A rat with a long tail and an enormous scrotum had recently moved into my home, and now slept in the crevices of the Hotpoint cooker I never used. Once, as the rat clung to the railing, I had hurled a stone at him, but he didn’t flinch. He looked at me as one looks at a child with poor aim. If I locked him inside the kitchen, where he lived, he would nibble on the door and screech. Google informed me that rats were cognitive and empathetic. They could cooperate to carry an egg from a tray and, like us, they fucked for pleasure. I learned I could poison him by feeding him clumps of bread mixed with Indocid. The indomethacin in the tablets would keep his blood from clotting, and when his intestines perforated he would bleed to death. The rat ate the bread and thrived.
He lay dead on the coffee table when I walked in, his still form captured by the beam from my mobile phone. I poked him with the end of a broomstick, expecting him to leap and turn into a zombie. But he didn’t move. Not even when I scooped him on a dustpan and carried him outside to throw him on the rubbish mound behind our apartment block. The stars were low that night, like distant campfires, and the moon was the colour of an orange Strepsil. I returned to find the electricity back and proceeded to shower. I turned the tap as hot as I could and as the water rushed down my back I imagined Hasan behind me. He was breathing raggedly and trailing his fingers on my shoulders, an animal self rising inside him. I rubbed soap on my wet socks but didn’t scrub myself. I leaned on the wall instead and masturbated, enlarging my penis with thoughts of Hasan and the reassurance that the rat was finally dead. I was enjoying the sensation when I saw a note on the window sill. It was from Mukui.
Everyone can see you when you wank. Switch off the lights at least when you go to the bathroom. Or get yourself a man!
I turned off the shower and stepped out. I put on my boxers and the T-shirt the bank had given us for Customer Service Week. I took some time before texting Mukui, telling her that a man on the bus had given me his number. She replied almost that same second. O.K. How now? I was irritated by her disbelief. But I also felt awkward, unsure how to articulate the encounter. She sensed this because she texted again, asking me to come to her house, a floor up.
Mukui’s carpet was soft and white and she had a large DVD collection that stretched wall to wall. On the wall was a large black-and-white picture of herself, dressed in a long gown that revealed the pointed end of a heel. I went to the kitchen where she was frying onions and tomatoes. She added a dash of spice and an aromatic scent filled the room.
‘Now you are the one getting men, eh?’ she said. ‘And the way I am beautiful.’
She lifted the cap off her small tin of Arimi’s and rubbed a bit of the milking jelly on her lips. She never let them dry. Her skin held water like a sponge. She was the only person I knew who could do her make-up inside a squeezed matatu: seated on just one buttock, her foundation, highlighter and everything else on her lap.
‘You left a note on my window,’ I said, intending to accuse but finding no words to strengthen my accusation.
‘I am sorry, Kibor.’
She pinched my chin and smiled. Her penciled eyebrows stretched like bands. I told her about meeting Hasan on the Double M, how he opened something inside me, like a door. I kept on talking as she cooked, and when I finished her fried rice had risen and hurled the lid off the pot.
‘Give me his number,’ she said.
I wanted to decline but she was smothering my plate of fried rice with Peptang’s Hot & Sweet. We sat in the living room to eat and she told me about her mother, who was bedridden and whittled to the bone by Aids.
‘Have you seen someone and just known that they are about to die?’
I said nothing, and when she asked what I was thinking I wanted to tell her I was still thinking about Hasan, about his blue eyes. But I kept quiet.
The bank I worked for had the best forex trading in Nairobi. This was the reason customers kept walking in, even though the BM and the ABM kept telling us that they did so because of good customer experience. Our eyes, they said, were to linger longer on our clients when the conversation was done; our handshakes had to be firm; and our commiserations—for the many times we posted their currency trading incorrectly—heartfelt. We had to be creative. ‘We apologise’ was too routine for the emails we sent during system delays. ‘We are apologetic’ carried the kind of sincerity that could surprise our customers and invigorate them to click on the attached NPS links and rate us well.
I was an Operations Officer and would arrive at work each morning to find my desk stacked with money drafts, telegraphic transfers, RTGS and SWIFT order forms. I had to transfer these onto MicroBanker before noon. Once, as I was logging in, I bit into an apple and was caught by the ABM.
‘What experience will our customers get if they see you eating at your desk like that?’ she said, looking like a carrot about to explode. ‘Do you think support officers at Barclays do this? And we are here wondering why their NPS scores are higher!’
I sweated till my shirt clung to my back, afraid she would write me a disciplinary memo. From then on, if I wanted to eat, I would rush upstairs to the cafeteria and sit on its single narrow bench. That was where I was, the next day, my chicken pie in hand, when Mukui called. When I failed to answer, she texted. Are you refusing to answer because of the note? I replied that I was busy looking for a missing file for the ABM and she said whatevs. Then she added that Hasan had invited her for dinner at his house and she wanted me to come. The tedium that was my daily experience at the office became a physical thing that crumbled to dust. I couldn’t wait for the day to end, for me to step onto the streets of Nairobi knowing I would spend the evening with a person I was interested in.
On the queue to board the Double M, I stood behind a woman whose hair had been styled into a fuzzy ball that smelled of coconut. It started to drizzle and we huddled, eager to enter the bus. I smelled the coconut in her hair even more then, its fragrance imbuing the air as she grunted in discomfort. We sat next to each other and she didn’t lean back. The rain fell harder and the conductor let more people in, even though the bus was already full. A man with narrow glasses and a mustache walked up to us and the woman moved for him. The man whispered to her and she smiled, and there was a lull before he reached over and touched her bangle, and as if that touch allowed it to happen, they began to talk and laugh avidly. I looked out the window, wishing for time to move quicker and bring me Hasan. I imagined whispering to Hasan memories I had never shared with anyone, like that of the avocado tree that grew behind our house: how, as a child, I would rush from school to check if its fruits had ripened. I stared out of the window for a long time because when I turned the man and the woman were gone. The rain had also stopped.
I got off the bus near Pearl Village, into a wet world in which Mukui was waiting for me, dressed in a beige cardigan that stretched to her knees. She was disappointed by my faded blue shirt and grey trousers. I could see it in her eyes, before she asked why I never thought of keeping spare dinner attire in my locker at the office.
‘How did you pull this off?’ I asked.
She smiled and said, ‘I am very persuasive.’
We reached the gate to Pearl Village and the guard directed us to Hasan’s house. The living room was bigger than I had imagined, with a grand piano and a dining table. Hasan, who was in pajamas, smiled stiffly as he ushered us in, then went back to the settee to pick up his glass of wine.
‘I brought juice,’ said Mukui, pulling two packets of Del Monte from her handbag and placing them on the coffee table before him.
‘I thought you were not going to come,’ he said. ‘Or you were going to come and not bring him.’
He had folded one leg onto the settee. The socks he had on were printed with tiny images of Disney’s Pinocchio. He looked fragile, as if he belonged to a less cruel world and would soon step through a gap in the universe, back to the world he belonged to.
‘Mukui told me you like art,’ he said.
‘You should see his house!’ said Mukui. ‘He has a face mask from Ghana, with this symbol of a bird twisting its neck to look back. What did you say the symbol was, Kibor?’
She looked at me with panic in her eyes, afraid I wouldn’t speak.
‘Sankofa,’ I said.
Hasan walked across the room to bring another bottle of wine and two glasses. Mukui kept staring at me and I felt obligated to keep talking.
‘What language were you speaking when we were sitting on the bus?’
He kept pouring. His fingers were too elegant for a man of his height.
‘That language sounded so good,’ I said. ‘I just wanted to keep listening to you.’
‘Everyone speaks some kind of language,’ he said. ‘It isn’t anything special.’ He smiled and stretched his flat palm. ‘Come, I need some help.’
He walked me to the kitchen, where he closed the door and moved close. He smelled of coconut, like the woman in the bus, and the hairs of his mustache were finely arranged. He leaned towards my ear and whispered in the language I had heard him speak on the bus.
‘Is that what you wanted to hear?’
He grinned when I said nothing, and taking a tiny key from his pocket, opened the cabinet above the sink and retrieved a large, rectangular object wrapped in manila. He tore the manila to reveal a plane of wood, etched, at the centre, with what resembled a man’s vertebrae. But when I looked again, the vertebrae had become a huge leaf with prominent veins. Hasan tilted it again and the large leaf became a dying man with arrows piercing his back, and as I stared, the arrows transformed into mushrooms growing under the shade of a tree. My body seared. I couldn’t help but ask what kind of witchcraft this was.
‘It’s an optical illusion,’ he said. ‘I play with light when working with wood.’
He showed me his hands. The palms were calloused and deep brown, like leather. He looked at me as if he could see me, see spaces in me that were shadowy and cold. I turned away.
‘I haven’t shown it to anyone yet. But someone like you, with your kind soul, I can’t hesitate to show. We were jogging at the arboretum. Or rather my boo was, and I was following him. I wanted to walk amidst the trees. I wanted to sit down and lean on a tree trunk, to try to spot a monkey or a bird. I didn’t call out to him. I saw this geometrical block of wood. Someone must have cut down a tree to make timber before abandoning the task. I couldn’t stop looking, and as I did, all these images began to dance. I had to carve them out. I hired a pick-up the next day and bribed the guard with a thousand bob. When I began to work on it, I became very quiet, and when my boo asked what was wrong I just said I had things on my mind.’
As he spoke, I felt the boundaries of my being unstitch and bind, not only to the wood carving, but to his memory: as if I was there with him that day, seeking to stay behind and be charmed by the forest. I felt special, because he had revealed his art to me before anyone else. When a man’s voice broke through from the living room, Hasan rewrapped the plane of wood with manila and locked it up. We walked out. Mukui was seated at the dining table, joined by a man with a flat cap, who had placed a pack of Tusker before him, as well as bottles of Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire.
‘You cooked all this, darling, and you didn’t tell me to come in early,’ said the man.
Beads of sweat patterned his lower neck, sliding when he moved. I wondered why he didn’t take off his denim jacket. Mukui kept laughing as the man talked and it felt forced. Hasan told him my name and the man just nodded, wrapping chapati round a drumstick.
He said, ‘Hasan, this house is too quiet!’
‘I know, right?’ said Mukui, her voice unsteady as she intertwined bits of her hair with her fingers.
‘What music should I play?’ said the man, whose name I later learned to be Chege. Mukui said soft rock but Chege didn’t let her finish her thought. ‘You don’t know music, girl! You cannot say you know music until you listen to Njoki Karu. You should come to my studio one Friday night, I show you what music is.’
Hasan seemed not to be listening, but to be reflecting on a tender thought. His eyes were illumined by light that wasn’t the dull yellow of the rest of the room. I became nervous when he smiled at me.
‘You are not saying anything,’ he said. ‘And why are you not eating?’
I served myself some sultana rice and osso buco gravy. The food was rich with spice. Mukui was wrapping chapati around a drumstick, just like Chege. A number of chicken bones were heaped on their plates.
‘Brighten up,’ said Chege, bumping me on the shoulder. ‘After this we are playing Cards Against Humanity.’
‘Leave Kibor alone,’ said Mukui. ‘He takes himself too seriously.’
They laughed uproariously as if there were something inherently funny in that dry statement. I detested how they began to smell of garlic.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ I asked, feeling the need to escape.
‘Look at him asking so politely, as if he is a mzungu,’ said Chege.
Hasan said, ‘Stop intimidating my guest,’ and pantomimed hitting him with a piece of rag.
I went down the corridor as advised, passing a room piled with boxes, rags and drawings. At the end, through a door covered with a kanga, the bathroom’s walls were painted a glossy black, and on the window sill was a tiny wooden elephant with a saddle of yellow and orange beads. The space felt warm, reminding me of how I would look down the neck of a gourd after my mother had scrubbed it with charcoal and poured warm milk inside. I stayed in the bathroom for as long as I could, wrestling an animal weight that made me want to lean on the wall and slide to the floor. I kept thinking about the sculpture and its scenes, how it called and absorbed parts of me in its dark, dense wood. Eventually, it became too weird to stay there any longer and I walked out, hoping they would have finished playing the card game.
Mukui called me into the room I had passed along the passage. She was seated on the bed, her hair loosened and her eyes relaxed, as if she had been released from torment. She smiled.
‘Look at this place.’
The space looked organised even in its mess, as if there were a method to the madness. The drawers on the left side of the bed smelled fresh.
‘You only need to look at how someone lives to know they are very interesting.’
‘What are you doing here?’ I said. ‘I thought you were content with being beside that man, laughing each time he breathed.’
She looked at me and I was disturbed by her tongue, which peeped through her lips before darting back. She broke the gaze.
‘Kibor, my mother is dying. If I have to find something to make me laugh, I will. Anyway, I was feeling a bit of a headache and Hasan told me I could come in here and lie down.’
‘You know this is someone’s house,’ I said. ‘You cannot get too comfortable.’
She said, ‘If there was a PhD in being worried, you would be the first person to earn it.’
She stood and rummaged through Hasan’s wardrobe and took out an Aztec print coat and asked me to try it on. I protested but tried it on anyway, and was surprised when it fit. Emboldened, I asked her to retrieve the pair of heeled, knee-high leather boots that had been revealed when she had pushed the coats back.
‘He will be pissed if he sees me in his boots,’ I said, swinging my leg up and down.
‘Stop saying some things, Kibor! Kwani, what can he do? Actually he needs to see you in his boots.’
We returned to the living room but stopped when we saw Hasan seated on Chege’s lap, giggling. Chege was stroking Hasan’s hand and pecking him on the neck. They had slipped into their own world, leaving Mukui and I behind Plexiglas. I realised then how tight the boots were, and wondered if blood was still flowing through my legs.
‘You are hurting him,’ I shouted.
Hasan looked at me, and if he had ever opened a door inside me, it closed.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday, Mukui and I decided to go to the Goethe Institut in Nairobi’s CBD, to listen to a band from Vienna. The poster showed a barefoot woman with rough hair holding a microphone, and close to her a man wincing as he struck a guitar. It was a free event, and there was the possibility that Mukui could make friends within the many European expatriates who were destined to show up, and get invited to more parties with interesting, sophisticated people. As usual, when the bus approached Muthurwa, traffic stalled. The drainage beside the road had thickened from a stinky black fluid into something semi-solid.
‘There is a woman who usually sits there,’ said Mukui.
She was pointing at a hut on the other side of the drain, made from corrugated iron sheets. Beside the hut was a clothesline swinging with baby clothes.
‘She’s always dressed in black. I hear, if she holds your hand and prays for you, anything you want in this life is yours.’
She was trying to make me talk, as I hadn’t said much since the dinner. Worried, she had tried to provoke me by asking me to do her errands—a box of matches from the kiosk outside our apartment when I was just about to sleep, a letter I had to stamp and post on my way to work. I had indulged her while staying quiet and this left her stranded.
‘I will find her and ask for a Porsche,’ I said.
She rolled her eyes.
‘At least today you are talking. I felt like you blamed me for what happened at Hasan’s house.”’
I cringed and tried, unsuccessfully, to push out any thought of Hasan. He had been a gentleman, showing no reaction to my shouting and no disgust when one of the boots I had put on got stuck. I had to sit on his bed and watch him strain his hands red as he pulled, imagining my exposed leg to be hitting his face with a sour pong that my nose was insensitive to. But he was patient, his fingers soothingly cold. He didn’t rush us afterwards, even serving us another round of wine before we left. There was a serenity in him that had me transfixed, and Chege would have faded away if only he had been quiet, if only he hadn’t repeatedly stated that I was hurting those boots more than he could ever hurt Hasan. When I reached home, I felt as if a vital fluid I had taken for granted was spilling out of me, a hollow and dreary feeling ensued and turned me morose.
‘Who is this one now?’ said Mukui, and I looked up.
A preacher had walked on to the bus. He had thin shoulders, a concave face and a nose as small as a button. He wore a purple suit and a checkered green tie (both unsuitable for the heat and for the weekend) and had a brown bag strapped over his shoulder. He told us that God had decided those of us who were going to live to see next year and we were to be thankful to God for His decision, even those of us who wouldn’t make it. He spoke of death, describing it not as a devastating biological reality, but as a means for souls that had found Christ to finally meet Him. In addition, the Holy Spirit had inspired him to make music that would remind us—mortals—how our lives were like leaves on a tree, destined to fall on the ground and crackle. The CDs were free, he said, but if anyone was to take one, God would be grateful for some money in return because that would enable His humble servant—himself—to keep on with the ministry.
Mukui listened ardently, then reached inside her handbag and took out a five-hundred shilling note. The man took the money, his ashy hand shaking. The CD had fourteen songs, the first titled JESUS MY EBENEZER. He told Mukui that the miracle she prayed for each morning would finally happen and when she briefly shut her eyes, I saw her tears balancing. The preacher only paid attention to those giving him money, telling each one that God was going to honour them with the desires of their heart. When he finished collecting the donations and distributing the CDs, he walked to the door. I felt compelled to talk to him, and when traffic broke, I skittered after him.
The hard-hitting sun outside created a world fit for the greasy men pushing mikokoteni; for the women with Ghana-must-go bags in one hand and a child on the other, seeking to cross the road in order to find a bus to take them to Bungoma; for the hawkers who colonised each inch of tarmac with piles of belts, handbags, camisoles and water bottles. A woman was seated on a stool on the other side of the drainage, and I jumped over and walked to her. She was wrapping sesame balls with pieces of newspaper before placing them inside a clear plastic container.
‘Buy,’ she said. ‘One is ten bob.’
‘Do you know where the pastor who was inside our bus has gone to?’
She looked at me and went back to wrapping her sesame balls. Her lips were thicker on one side of her mouth.
‘Young man, leave these Nairobi crooks alone,’ she said. ‘You are looking for him so that he tells you what?’
Before she could finish, I asked her if she was the woman who prayed for people and supposedly granted them their heart’s wishes. The thick end of her lip pulsed.
‘You ask too many questions for a Saturday,’ she said. ‘Buy my sesame if you are buying. You are standing here looking for what? Or you want to steal from me? You know I can scream?’
I stepped back and looked down the road. Our bus was gone but another Double M was approaching and I saw the preacher with his purple coat get in. I jumped over the drainage and got inside. The conductor tried to block me but I marched on. He scowled and said I would pay fifty bob like everyone else. I dropped a crumpled fifty-shilling note on his outstretched hand and walked to the back of the bus where the preacher was a darkened, bowed figure. I tapped his shoulder and, when he failed to respond, tugged his coat. He turned, annoyed, and told me that he needed to finish up with the woman he was talking to, who had an arm held up. I moved to the next empty seat and looked out of the window, wondering how I would explain my abrupt departure to Mukui, when the preacher came and sat next to me.
‘You can talk to me now.’
His teeth were tiny and brown, and he had the demeanour of a man living in pain.
‘Someone has carved my soul on a piece of wood.’
I leaned my head on the window, surprised to find it cold. I needed to be free from the tight feeling in my chest, and the preacher seemed to be the kind of person who could show me how. He took off his coat and I realised he was much younger than I thought. His collar was frayed and lined with grime.
‘For that kind of prayer, I will take a thousand bob.’
When he tried to reach for my hand, I pulled away.
‘How much do you have?’ he asked.
‘Just a hundred.’
He sat up and cupped his hands. A thin scar stretched in a straight line from his forehead to his ear.
‘There was a woman who had your problem. She was also mKisii, like me. A man placed her soul inside a gourd decorated with cowrie shells. The woman was walking to school—she was a primary school teacher—when she began to run, seeking this man. No one stopped her. We never saw her again.’
As he spoke, I saw the woman. She was in her early forties, plump, with dimples and cornrows. I saw sweat bead her forehead as she ran, before flowing thickly. I saw her running outside on Landhies Road, stepping on tomatoes and onions sold on the pavement. I saw myself running in the opposite direction, searching for Hasan.
‘When Fathee realised that Mathee left him for a man who had placed her soul in a gourd, he began to beat us. This mark here is where he threw a machete at me.’
He pointed at a scar like a child would, as if I had cotton and gentian violet, ready to wipe and tell him, ‘Don’t cry.’
‘Help me with some money?” he asked’
‘Forget my story,’ I replied. ‘I made it up.’
He bit his lip, holding back tears.
‘But you can still pray for me,’ I said. ‘I know God listens to you.’
He gripped my hand and mumbled as the Double M pushed its way up Haile Selassie Avenue, past throngs of women wrapped in leso who sold shelled peas, ginger powder and sweet potatoes. When the Double M circled the roundabout and turned to enter Tom Mboya Street, he became even louder. But he was praying in kiKisii and I couldn’t understand a thing. Only when the bus stopped at Kencom did he run out of words. He slouched when I freed myself from his grip.
‘I just have two hundred shillings,’ I said, taking it out of my wallet. ‘Let it be your blessing. Look for something to eat and ensure you get some rest.’
He folded the money in his fist and started crying. When I walked out, he had laid his face on his brown bag.
Even if I hadn’t been exhausted by the street preacher’s antics, I would have found the distance from Kencom to the Goethe Institut overwhelming. But I was determined to make amends with Mukui, and that’s why I bought her the achari sold by women in burkas who squat outside the walls of Jamia Mosque. I was afraid I would be turned away by the Goethe Institut’s security guards because it was late, and I took out my phone, ready to text Mukui if that happened. But when I approached the building, there she was, seated on the ramp outside.
‘I am sorry,’ I said.
She shook her head from side to side, crying.
‘What is it that is this bad, Mukui?’
My question only made her cry harder.
‘I have just been called. Mum is gone.’
I went to a place absent of thought and feeling. The music, which we could hear from inside the hall, lost register. Across the road, the sharp glass corners of Anniversary Towers impaled the sun and made it bleed.
After the funeral, I took a week off from work to be there for Mukui. I helped her move out of Donholm into a bedsit in Lavington, which she described as having wide French windows. Since she freelanced (writing class assignments for American college students through some dubious website) we were able to meet every other day at Karura Park, where we strolled aimlessly in the forest, inspired less by the trees and the whistling birds than by the random act of walking.
One day, as she walked in front of me, she said: ‘Brucellosis, typhoid, pneumonia.’
I was unsure how to respond, when she added that those were the diseases that killed her mother. ‘Not Aids. Not Aids.’
Her eyebrows were now lush, and she had an astute way of observing the world, as if her eyes had been infused with iron. She knew sorrow in a way I did not. I had never watched a loved one die, and I was sure that this was gnawing on our friendship.
Later, we sat on a bench before an oval-shaped clearing. There were more people here, many of whom were jogging. Some of them with their dogs. Eucalyptus trees surrounded the clearing and there were low cape gooseberry bushes behind them. A slight wind brought us the minty, camphorous scent of the trees.
‘Your house is dark,’ she said.
‘I always open my curtains, Mukui.’
‘In my new house, I open my French windows and the sun actually gets in.’
‘I plan to move to Langata,’ I said, knowing very well I would not.
‘What is so good with this Donholm, Kibor? Is it those men who wear cheap polyester underwear labelled “free from China”?’
I rubbed my hands and looked down. A tiny flower stood next to my foot, too low to quiver in the wind. I disliked Mukui then, conscious of a latent spite in her that could only keep growing. I told her I was taking an Uber home but I went to Club LA instead. I sat on the balcony with my Smirnoff Black, glad to be alone. When I was on my second bottle, I texted Hasan, telling him that I wanted to talk to him about his wood carving. He replied with a smiling emoji, telling me he was finished with it and, if I was free, he could bring it over to my place. My first reaction was to tell him I was out of town. But because I was still angry at Mukui, I told him we could meet outside Greenspan Mall, at 3 p.m.
He stood by the gate, dressed in a black turtleneck and orange Capri pants, his loafers revealing skin a shade lighter than his face. He had the manila-wrapped frame under his arm and a chisel peeped through his pocket. I smelled expensive cologne.
‘I am sorry about Chege,’ he said. ‘He is rough around the edges.’ He shrugged. ‘Even me, I get tired of him at times.’
We walked down the cabro pavement and crossed the road to buy tomatoes, onions and bell peppers. I planned to make him fried rice.
‘Is your house still too far?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
‘You could have just told me the gate and house number and I would have walked there.’
‘We have no gates or house numbers.’
I picked the groceries and led him through a corridor to a muddy path, where I told him to walk carefully, not just because of the puddles, but also because of the cows and stray dogs that wandered about with unpredictable temperaments. Hasan was composed, even stopping to admire a group of young men in slippers and hoodies who were playing a football video game inside a store. I bought him mshikaki from the butchery a few metres from my house and he ate it slowly, savouring the spicy roasted beef.
‘Do you live alone?’ he asked.
I said yes but I wanted to say more: that I preferred specific places in my house, like the side of my bed next to the window. I wanted to say that my utensils hadn’t been washed for so long that remnants of ugali in a sufuria had grown mold; that my walls had been discoloured by steam unable to escape.
He placed the frame on the table, right next to the door, as soon as we walked in, and ripped off the manila. The wooden plane covered more than half the table. I could see the grooves and etches, but with the poor light the optical illusions failed to form. I trailed my fingers on it and it was as if an invisible person was behind me, blowing warm air on my neck. What came to mind, as I touched the carving, was the rough bark of a wattle tree, how I would tear it off with my nails, seeking yellow wax to chew. I also remembered a verse from a Jonathan Kariara poem.
If you should take my child, Lord
Give my hands strength to dig his grave
Cover him with earth
Lord send a little rain
For grass will grow
I had read the poem twelve years back when I was just sixteen, seated on a grass patch beside a wattle tree that grew at the edge of our vegetable garden. We had carrots, coriander, collard greens and cabbage. Wild kisocho thrived among these, yielding juicy red berries that I delightedly ate and stained the pages of the poetry book. On the other side of the garden was a cluster of Abyssinian bananas and, as I read, I could see a litter of four abandoned puppies asleep under their shade. I had just fed them with a mixture of milk and leftover ugali. In that place, at that moment, I was untroubled, and as I touched Hasan’s carving, I felt that sense of peace draw in. I lifted my hand.
‘You have stood for so long,’ he said.
He sat on my sofa as he did in his house, one leg folded under the other, his elbow on the armrest. The room seemed to rearrange itself to make him comfortable. I opened the window before sitting down, pushing the curtains as far back as I could.
‘Your carving reminds me of home,’ I said.
He looked at me with an empty, despairing expression.
‘I didn’t tell you, that same day I hid the block of wood from Chege, is the same day he asked if we could move in together. It came to mind, as he said so, that I wasn’t ready. Chege talks too much, you know, especially in the evenings, those times when I prefer to sit alone with my thoughts. Chege will not allow you to be quiet or alone. He will always have a story to tell. He will ask you a question to see if you are listening. Don’t think that I am saying he is a bad person. It isn’t like that. Look, last year, when we were camping in Kakamega, I would come from the shower to find the cabin tidied and my breakfast ready. That is Chege for you. But at times, you just want someone who is more perceptive. Does that make sense?’
I listened and imagined Hasan to be in love with me. All I said was that I had to go to the kitchen and start cooking. I was overwhelmed that he had shared this story with me, and in the kitchen I half hoped he would be embarrassed by it and walk away. But as the onions caramelised in the pot, he was still there. I closed my eyes and felt an ominous presence in the air, like a mass of bereft feelings that had separated from their possessors to form their own consciousness. Hasan stood and closed the curtains. I heard him scrape on the plane of wood, as if searching for our solace.
- Kiprop Kimutai, a Kenyan writer whose fiction has appeared in Kwani? Trust, Jalada, PBQ, No Tokens, Prufrock, Kachifo, New Internationalist and Acre Books. He was a 2019 Baldwin fellow and is currently writing his novel and a collection of stories set in Donholm, Nairobi.