The JRB presents new fiction from Ema Babikwa, from the forthcoming anthology Something in the Water: New Short Fiction from Africa.
Garden Made of Water
March 11th, 2015
Some things don’t change. The lake still smells of fish and wet salt. I am on the boat with my father’s fishermen. I know Rwa Gasabo and Mugabe. I have known them since I was a child.
Rwagasabo laughs a lot and Mugabe is a ‘buxom’ man. He smells like yam. There’s another. Jean. He is much younger than the other two and he looks like he is perhaps a year or two older than I am. He knows he has nice teeth. He smiles easily. This is the first day I’ve met him. He said my toes look like they belong to a person who has never played football. This wasn’t a compliment. He wasn’t lying either. I grinned when he said this. He is funny.
I am sitting in the middle of the boat, strategically, so I can be useful when the need arises. I am not like my father. I don’t think work is poetry—not this type of work anyway. But I am here. I am doing the thing his father did, and all the men before him. He thinks there’s some sort of honour in that. I don’t. But when I’m here, he is happy. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from the couple of years I’ve been an adult, not all joy looks the same.
I don’t think the lake is the place for me.
For about two hours, I’ve listened to these men talk about politics. I love politics. I don’t interrupt. I don’t interject. I only open my mouth to laugh. Mugabe suggests that for us to see the change that this country so badly needs, civilians should bundle up parliamentarians and the cabinet of ministers and throw them into the lake—the president too. I laugh again. Such a cheek. Such radicalism. Such truth! I want to tell them I hate the regime too. I don’t think I trust them that much—yet.
The conversation casually shifts to the owner of the beach where we dock our fishing boats. He apparently bought his neighbour cans of paint so he could match the colour of the beach buildings. He said the neighbour’s house made the neighbourhood unattractive and that it was bad for his business.
I laugh again. I am now embarrassed. I have trouble speaking to these kinds of men because I always feel like I am sitting on a secret, like they should never truly know me.
My mouth finally opens for business at the third hour.
‘He is new money. Only someone who’s recently gotten rich could do something like that. People with old money are not that classless,’ I say.
Jean turns and peers at me as if to say he is surprised I can talk. I want to throw a shoe at him. I go on to talk about the many faces of nouveau-riche behaviour, one of which is a stiff superiority complex. They nod. Their heads rise and fall like the tides. I want to go on and tell them how our country is haemorrhaging money and how better we could twirl the economy if the government cared at all. I want to have enough money of my own to haemorrhage but I am a broke boy who likes drinks with icy smoke and olives in them. What do I know about money?
It’s over now. They think I am brilliant. I still have that city undergrad scent on me. They joke about how I cannot speak the native tongue for a clean ten minutes, a trait that my family despises.
I’ve heard people say that fishermen and sailors walk with their hands, that the lake is a cruel parent who does not shelter them when it rains. I fully grasped this truth today. Right after we draw in the catch from the first net, it starts to rain. Heavily. The boat engine swallows water and has a seizure. We pick oars and paddle. I am tired and I can feel the raindrops flogging the English out of me. I lose rhythm. Jean takes the oar from me and keeps paddling. I smile. I cannot thank him because he will gloat.
I am still feeling seasick and we’ve been out of the water for about four hours now. Seasickness is a hybrid of flatulence, hunger, throwing up and the urgent need to take a shit. All the four don’t happen. So I writhe on. It is cold out here and my ears hurt. I touched a snail earlier on, one of those little lake molluscs, and when I brought my fingers back to my nose, they smelled like an unwiped bum. I need a cigarette.
It is 8.00 p.m. The mosque nearby just called for the last prayer of the day. I walk back home slowly. Sauntering. Chewing a blade of grass I picked on the way. It dawns on me halfway the journey that someone could have peed on it. A man. A dog. Or a goat. The thought of a man peeing on it doesn’t shake me much.
Like fame, my name arrives home before I do. I hear Rwa Gasabo say, ‘Gaju will share his room with Jean tonight. They are the youngest here. They have no women or children. He! he! he!’ Jean didn’t close his room window when we went fishing and the rain had fallen on his bed, his carpet and the laundry he had been too lazy to fold and put away. He seems enthusiastic about us sharing the little warm and dry habitation. I shrug.
I do not know how not to be awkward. It’s my third language.
It’s an East and West Germany situation here. We dance around each other in calculated steps and the energy is coming from me and he is mirroring it and I don’t know what to do to make it stop. For about twenty minutes, the air is enveloped in the silence of a thousand starless nights.
‘Do you want to smoke?’
‘Yes,’ I reply.
I joined him at the bathroom window. He lights a joint. We smoke at the window so that there are no whiffs of hemp on our clothes tomorrow. We blow the wires of tepid smoke out through the metal mesh.
‘Why did you say I’ve never played football?’ I ask in an attempt to permanently exorcise the silence from our midst. ‘You think I’m not strong like you? Eh!’
‘Your feet. Your toes. They look soft. You don’t use them much. I bet you’re always wearing socks or sandals,’ he says, catching himself between belts of laughter.
Again, he is not lying. I am wearing checkered woollen socks.
He leans out the window and I can see his side profile. His shadow on the wall is a very neat silhouette. Smoke leaves his lips and decimates itself into the cold darkness of tonight. He looks at me and something in me moves. My belly gets warm.
‘Well, I am going to sleep on the side of the bed that is closer to the door.’
‘Okay.’ I shrug lightly. I loathe the stunted stylistics of my communication. I loathe my monotonous body language and limited reactions to all things grand and small. I hate the invisible chains on my hands, eyes, lips and legs. I hate that I am too careful. When I say ‘Okay’ I mean, ‘Well, sure, you can sleep on whichever side of the bed you like. Just don’t snore or hog the blanket.’
He undresses and I avert my eyes. I hear the duvet fall onto his body. He is in bed now. I turn the light off and slide in next to him, fully clothed. I face the ceiling for about three minutes. He turns to face me. Something in me twitches. He isn’t about to sleep at all. I know this because his breaths have gotten shorter and very controlled. He is watching me. He drags himself across the sheets towards me. I don’t move. His left backhand grazes against my chest and he finds my nipple. My skin becomes a village of small riots under the shirt I refused to take off. I turn and face him and my lips meet his.
‘Are you … ?’ I ask.
He looks me in the eye. His face gleams in the dark, his mouth too heavy to speak.
He looks me in the eye and I know.
Tomorrow I will be a cathedral of regrets.
I fell asleep.
November 5th, 2017
Everything has a story on this beach. Its lingering smell of wet salt; the smell of fish wafting in the air, tobacco. My feet feel the sand. The sand holds out her hands to feel me back.
What is the difference between promises and dreams? I say it is the rate at which they oxidise. A mouth that was once everything holy now lies forever shut.
‘When did you know?’
I want to say I always knew. I want to say the other boys teased me in primary school because my voice was a little higher than everyone else’s. I want to say I always held my towel up at my chest in boarding school as if to keep my ‘bust’ intact. Before adolescence, before I got a beard, I heard my father tell his friends that I looked like my mother when she was younger.
I want to say I lisp when I drink liquor and that I talk with my hands when I am angry. I want to tell him I make better millet bread and beef stew than any woman I’ve ever met. I want to tell him I’ve always been unusual.
I want to tell him my relationship with boys has always been turbulent, formless and powerful, like water. I want to tell him I close my eyes and think about boys when I’m with my girlfriend so I can ejaculate. I want to tell him he is the second man I’ve done this with and my soul is somersaulting at the very centre of my being.
He asked when I knew. I told him I had known for only about a month.
Today is one of the dead things that the lake coughs up. I want to bite into a lemon. I don’t want to be here. I really wish I was someplace else. I don’t want to see anyone. Some pain is sacred. It is not to be shared. It is not to be halved. Only felt. Alone. Only kept. In the deepest darkest places where you keep god.
My hair is breaking today like a sudden onset of baldness, like an aggressive case of alopecia. I remember going to the local tavern with him. Jean. I recall in explicit detail the three evenings we skipped the promo meal and just drank beer. I hate beer. I hate the foam and the lazy bubbles. Its indecisiveness on whether to fizz or just sting like a shot of vodka. We skipped the meal in anticipation of how great the night would be. Oh the stories my body could tell! Him lying on his back and me standing over him. Slowly falling. Intertwining. Raw passion laced with sticky flesh.
There were nights I didn’t want him inside of me or myself inside of him. All I wanted was to hold him so close that our souls would touch. I wanted him to be the thing that takes me to war. The thing that ends me.
I remember March, April, May and June. Moments that my mind has forever italicised.
I watched life whirl us in different directions in the months that followed. I watched life twiddle us between its thumbs like a toddler plays with toys. I taught myself to need him less. I bet he taught himself to not desire. To not feel. So we became two poles at opposite ends of a goal post buttressed into the ground by concrete. So close and so tragically distant.
Today is a story I don’t like. I am exhuming things long buried with no idea where I’m going to put them. No final resting place. No home.
Have you ever buried someone you’ve had sex with? Is this something I should tell a priest? Something I should confess?
Your nine-month-old son looks just like you. His mother is crying. He is baring his gums. His baby nose is neatly sculpted. Like yours. I wonder if he will be a keeper of secrets, like you.
Sighs are answers too. They are answers to spiritual questions for which the mouth has no language. I know that now.
I got a big boy job, Jean, and I don’t smell like fish anymore. I hate everyone I work with. I think they hate me too but they can’t get rid of me. I got my degree and the only thing standing between me and my MA is nine more months and two installed payments to NAF Bank. I stay alone in an apartment in the suburbs that I keep so clean I can eat my meals off the kitchen floor. I come back home at 6 p.m., drink wine out of the bottle and watch Al Jazeera. The cleaning lady comes in and does the laundry on Fridays, wipes the place clean and takes out the rancid vegetables from the fridge. On the weekends when I have enough energy for social recreation, I call a couple of friends over and we grill meats in my oven.
The men come and go. The men come and go because they are rivers. You can’t make them flow upwards. You can’t make them flow towards you. They are rivers. They only know how to flow. And I am lonely. I leave all the lights on. I’ve become those people that cuddle cushions and accolades. Success is a cold bedfellow. The only thing at my place that’s permanent is the Pinterest-inspired living room and the white walls that have never heard you laugh.
Did you ever feel chewed and spat out, Jean Pierre Kabaya? Disposable? Did you ever feel that I did less than I should have done? That I was not enough? That it was selfish of me to pick up my life and let you keep up yours? Because I feel that way now and have felt so many times before.
Three months are one too many. A year is an eternity. Two could be one too few. What is time? Why do you mean this much to me when I was with you for so little time? What would it mean if I went out now, collected all the clocks in the world and sunk them? Nothing. No one here knows me well enough to commiserate so I’m inwardly combusting.
How many times did you pick the phone to call me and then put it back down? I did it once because I didn’t know what to tell you and it was ten to midnight. No one picks their phone at that time.
You have a child. A whole toothless mewling child and a big-bosomed woman. Fuck you Jean Pierre Kabaya! I’ll never have that. I know. I’m angry and don’t know who to rip apart. I am overwhelmed by the sum of things I want but will never have, do or say. What are promises? What are dreams?
In the culture of my people, we wash our dead to show our last respects. It’s our sacred homage before the priests sprinkle Latin and Holy Water to drive spirits out of the land of the living.
Rwagasabo, Mugabe, Jean and I are in the same place—again. Rwagasabo is not laughing. I am holding my breath for as long as I can. No one wants the final fragrance of someone they loved to be this. Mugabe has plucked his boxers from his great behind at least twice now. None of us is speaking. Some older women come in to help us wash him with a wet loofah sponge. Mugabe unrolls the sheet from the legs upwards and lifts it from the limp body.
Jean is naked.
He is still uncircumcised.
Some things don’t change. I am standing over him—again.
- Ema Babikwa is a 24-year-old queer Ugandan. He’s a social justice zealot who doubles as a plant dad and a perpetual sky gazer in his free time. On nights when he can’t sleep, he reads and writes poetry.
This story appears in the anthology Something in the Water: New Short Fiction from Africa. This is the second anthology of The Blood Beats Series, whose first anthology was published in April 2019 by Brittle Paper. Established in 2020, The Blood Beats Series aims to publish short fiction by and about queerness and queer people across the African continet, to centre queer people in the own narratives by prioritisng stories written queer writers. Something in the Water is slated to be published this year; further details of this publication will be shared on the Series’ social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook.