We were all there the day Mr Man came to town, driving that blister-coloured tin car. It looked like he had scrounged the dumpsters for scraps, like he had welded them together under a flaying sun, building an automobile out of tractor parts and posho mill parts and old radiator and washing machine parts. We thought to ourselves, ‘A man like this must have a good story lodged beneath his tongue.’ We knew that we wanted him to stay for as long as it took to get that story out.
It was the first of December, Epitaph Day in our town. That’s the day of the year that we set aside for remembering our dearly departed. In the morning, we went to Our Lady of Lourdes, and Father Jude Thaddeus called each of our dead by name, and we blinked tears into our canvas shoes and swallowed the Communion host and said to each other, ‘Take heart, my dear, take heart.’
And afterwards, we went to the brewhouse, and Mama Chibwire dipped into her barrels and handed out mugs of mead. That’s what we were doing when Mr Man came to town. We were sipping on mead and sniffling into our sleeves. Thinking of the way Salama used to cut chunks off the cow’s rump right while it grazed on the field, thinking of Aminata’s funny skulking walk, thinking of GodblessAmen’s way with cane rats, how they followed him every which way he went, like he was the Pied Piper, how the neighbourhood children took to saying that GodblessAmen himself looked like a cane rat, and when they said this, the grown folk started to see it too, and we all believed that no doubt GodblessAmen had once been a cane rat himself and no doubt he would turn into one again when he was done with this wearisome life.
That’s exactly how it happened in the end. GodblessAmen was riding his motorcycle when he got waylaid by a boda boda thief and received a machete blow to the neck. Someone telephoned the police. They arrived to find him no longer a man, just a mangled rat trying to dig itself into the murky ground. The police were frothing at the mouth. They would not believe that a dying man had just up and turned himself into a cane rat. They smacked the bystanders with clubs, saying, ‘You dare waste the government’s time?’
We were at the brewhouse that Epitaph Day, and we were sipping on mead, and thinking of all the ones we had lost. Then Mr Man drove by in his tin car, squinting, forehead scrunched, looking like he owed us a story. Mama Chibwire poured him a mug, and we all scooted over to make room for him and for that wretched soul that followed him around. And Philomena sat in his lap because she was already drunk and when Philomena is drunk she’s truly mannerless – she will climb atop of tables and piss in soda bottles, or she will grab a hog by its corkscrew tail and drag it, grunting and tottering, across the town, until the apothecary runs out of her wood cottage, waving a cast-iron pan, saying, ‘Philomena Nanjala, let that poor devil go or I will wreck your medulla oblongata!’
Mr Man gulped down his drink, mouth twisted on account of the floral notes of the mead – the lilacs and the lantanas that the honeybees had suckled. Or perhaps just on account of the mead’s cloying sweetness. He did not seem to like what Philomena was doing on him, either. She was writhing, her eyes closed, looking like a woman deep in the throes of childbirth. She acted like she was doing something sensual, like she was trying to seduce the poor fellow, trying to make him say, ‘Haki ya nani, you’re finishing me!’ But us, we knew the truth. She was only trying to feel for his wallet, to learn how fat its contents were, so she could make up her mind whether he was worth her time or not. We were horrified at her guts. We said, ‘Philomena Nanjala, behave yourself !’
Philomena’s sister, Petronilla, was there with us too. She grew vexed. She jumped up from her stool, grabbed Philomena and tossed her out the window. Philomena fell into the puddle below, where she promptly blacked out.
We felt ashamed, like we had let Mr Man see us with snot smeared across our cheeks, or with holes in our bloomers. We felt we ought to apologize for Philomena’s gaudy behavior. So we gave Mr Man ingratiating smiles, and complimented him on his shirt, which read United Colors of Benetton.
‘Where are you from?’ Mama Chibwire asked, filling Mr Man’s mug.
He pointed over his shoulder with his gnarled-up thumb, towards the wispy, mint-coloured horizon. We wondered to ourselves if he meant just over the valley, or if he meant a place like Sudan or Manitoba or Kyoto. A man like that really could have come from anywhere. And with that wretched soul, too, following him everywhere like a haggard shadow. We looked at it, all curled up at Mr Man’s feet. Where had Mr Man picked it up? Had an old hag given him the evil eye? Had a beggar asked for a coin, and then cursed him when he’d refused?
We looked pitifully at Mr Man.
‘Stay,’ we said to him. ‘Stay for as long as you want.’
Me, I always thought of my mama on Epitaph Day. Now I wanted to gulp down a mug of mead in her honour. I wanted to pour some on the ground and say, ‘Dottie Nyairo, you old scoundrel.’ But Mama Chibwire wouldn’t let me drink any mead. She said, ‘Mbiu Dash, you’re only thirteen.’
They made a mule out of me every chance they got. Everyone in the town did. They said, ‘I see you’re headed towards the marketplace, Mbiu Dash, be a good girl and take this bag of charcoal with you to the maize-roaster.’ They said, ‘What’s an orphan like you running around for? You’ve got no place to go, and no people to see either. Here, scrub this bucketful of bed sheets. And mind, I’ll be checking your pockets later, so don’t think you can pinch any of the Omo.’ They said, ‘Mbiu Dash, hop on over and fetch the apothecary. Tell her that the rabbit keeper got that dirty thing of his stuck inside maid’s hole again.’
When they had things for me to do, no one gave a squirrel’s tail that I was thirteen. And when I was darting through the streets, knocking on their doors, saying, ‘Please-please-please you’ve got to let me in before they catch me,’ no one minded that I was thirteen either. They only tugged at their curtains, and said, ‘Not my problem.’
Well, let me ask you, whose problem was it, then, that the police and the preacher men and the busboys wouldn’t leave me alone? That they were always trying to sneak up on me, trying to stuff their fists in my mouth and do me the dirty? Whose problem was it that there were throwaway kids like me all over town, hiding in the gutters because no one wanted to see their grimy faces, stealing dried sardines from the fishmonger’s stall, and running, constantly running, so as not to get dragged into the alleyways?
You’re only thirteen. Fair enough. But I had seen much since that day my mama robbed the bank. This made me big thirteen, the type to be able to drink mead on Epitaph Day if I wanted. Still, Mama Chibwire slapped my hand if I reached for any of it. She gave me bone soup instead, and not even salted bone soup. I sipped glumly and I thought of my mama robbing the bank, how she laughed and laughed until no more sound came out of her throat.
Every Epitaph Day, Sospeter Were took out his PA system and played ‘Vunja Mifupa’, and we all spilled out of the brewhouse and did the chini-kwa-chini dance for our dead ones. We thought of how someday it would be us gone, and how some other people would be the ones twisting themselves and turning themselves upside down and inside out for us. It was a sweet thought, one that made our toes curl with glee. To be dead someday, and missed, and held tenderly by those we’d left behind – that was our greatest aspiration in Mapeli Town.
I got up too, to go dance for my mama. But the townspeople shook their heads at me and said, ‘Mbiu Dash, you had best sit here and keep our guest company.’
I clicked my tongue to the roof of my mouth. ‘Look what you did,’ I said to Mr Man, when everyone else was gone.
‘You like to dance?’ he asked.
‘What type of question is that? Everyone likes to dance.’
‘Well, dance for me then I see.’
And I curled my lips. I was big thirteen. I knew what men were like. I said, ‘Don’t speak such mud to me. You think I’m a puppy dog, to do things for you just because you asked?’
Mr Man frowned, chastised.
I said, ‘Why don’t you ask him to dance for you?’
I was pointing at the wretched soul at his feet. It was a boy. Well, what was left over after the boy’s boyhood was plucked away. He was all shrunken and empty and limp, like a squishy rubber toy. He wore an ivy cap, plaid shirt and corduroy trousers. He had glass shards for eyes, cobalt-coloured, sparkling even in the muted light of the brewhouse.
‘Who is he?’ I asked Mr Man.
‘That’s my son Magnanimous.’
Mr Man pushed his brew mug over to me, and said that I could have as much of his mead as I liked. I knew that a gesture like that was awfully suspicious. A grown chap like him, trying to intoxicate a young girl? I said, ‘Shame on you, Mr Man.’
Then I got up and left, jumping out the side window so that none of the dancing townspeople would see and make me stay. I stumbled over Philomena, who was still lying in a muddy pool. I squatted down beside her. I studied her face, memorizing the arch of her eyebrows, the curve of her cheekbones, the bridge of her nose. I pushed her lips back and studied the inside of her mouth. Her gums were orange like a drying river, like henna on the fingernails of the women who sold baobab seeds outside the town mosque. A praying mantis hopped onto the sharp edge of her chin. I flicked it away before it could crawl higher, into her nostril. Then I lay down in the crook of Philomena’s arm, with my ear pressed to her chest. I listened. It sounded like a seashell in there. White noise.
I pinched my eyes shut and pretended that Philomena was my mama. I pretended that it was the old days, before my mama ever robbed the bank. I pretended that my mama came home from work, and that we ate coconut rice with curried chicken, and that I had rubbed her sore back with oil of calendula and peppermint prescribed by the apothecary. And now we were lying together in the bed that we shared, my mama’s soft snores making the chiffon canopy above us tremble.
My mama worked as a tooth doctor. Each evening, I ironed her white scrubs and set them ready for her. Now they dangled on a hanger behind the bedroom door. Sometimes, in the afternoons, she came to fetch me from school. I would find her standing by the barbed-wire fence, wearing her scrubs and a bear-fur trapper hat that she once found in a Moscow flea market. She would be smiling coyly, her eyes glowing in the sun, her pockets bulging with sweets.
My mama was not finicky like other tooth doctors. She always let me eat as much Goody Goody and Chupa Chups as I wanted. And she never once made me brush my teeth before bed. We had an understanding: I could ruin my teeth, perforate them with holes big enough to lose five-shilling coins inside, and she would patch them up for me with silver amalgam someday.
Every evening, as we lay in bed together, I chewed on bonbons and ball gums and gobstoppers. I chewed them until my jaws ached. I chewed them until the flax of the pillowcase stuck to my face. I chewed them and stared out our bedroom window, watching as men hobbled by, hawking a type of rhubarb which gave a person’s virility back to them, and as women wheeled handcarts filled with sour flatbread and canisters of camel’s milk. Busboys clambered onto the roofs of their fifty-seaters and lay there, smoking Lucky Strikes and singing ‘I Shot the Sheriff’.
And my mama, she was lost inside herself, surrounded by a clammy, half-fragrant, half-pungent devil-wind that spun fast and flung rotted tonsils and misaligned jaws and Kalashnikov rifles at her.
‘What are you doing?’ someone asked.
I opened my eyes and was dismayed to find that I was not in the flat that my mama and I had once shared, but rather, in a puddle, cradling a drunken woman’s head, pretending like she was my mama. Mr Man was watching me. He leaned out the window, with his mug of mead pressed to his hairy bottom lip, and with that wretched soul – that leftover boy Magnanimous – clinging diagonally across his body like a satchel.
‘Nothing,’ I said, and got up, and began to walk away.
‘Wait,’ Mr Man called. ‘Wait, please.’ And he scrambled to jump out of that brewhouse side window, same as I had just done.
I looked over my shoulder and saw that the townspeople were dancing a little ways off, their limbs melting in the heat like sticks of butter. They were drunk, every last one of them, and now they tottered, and they contorted themselves, and they hooked onto each other like parts of a chain-link fence.
I knew peril when I saw it. And here it was – a godforsaken man, prowling about, trying to ensnare a throwaway girl. He knew full well that the entire town had lost its mind to Mama Chibwire’s mead.
He knew that he could do anything to me no problem, there weren’t any witnesses.
I said to myself, ‘Mbiu Dash, you witless dunce, don’t just stand there!’
I took off running towards the yellowwood trees. I quickly lost Mr Man – he did not know the way through the clock tower, or the boatyard, or the old cemetery, or the schoolhouse. Now I was in the town, and I went from window to window, peeking in. That’s what I did on most days – pressed my face to dusty panes and squinted, watching as the townspeople drank masala tea and listened to Je, Huu Ni Ungwana? on the radio.
I started peeking through windows after I lost my mama. I was full of fear that I would wake up someday and find that everyone else was gone too. That I was truly alone. So, I watched the townspeople through their windows, to make sure that they were all still there, and that their hearts were all still pounding in their chests.
Currently, no one was home. The entire town was at the Epitaph Day dance by the brewhouse. I looked inside the empty houses, and it occurred to me that absence was just as meaningful to observe as presence. Each of the houses had its own muffled vivacity: shadows climbing up the walls, sitting in the rafters, chewing khat. Mice hobbling out of cracks and rolling like bowling balls across cement floors. And the ghosts of the dearly departed, returning briefly. Sitting in rocking chairs to darn threadbare coats. Swirling soups of pig’s feet that were simmering on unattended stoves. Writing letters to loved ones they had left behind. Saying, In the long of night, I walk the navy sky and count the stars with my own hand, naming each after you.
Mr Man came driving in his jalopy, sticking his head out the window, saying, ‘Wait, please!’
I took off running again. Past the tin houses that crinkled in the heat. Past the fields of bristle-grass and juniper bushes and sunflowers. Past the papyrus reeds and sycamores and wattle trees. Up the hill that sometimes wobbled on fatigued feet. To the vulgar house where my darling lived.
There was a rickety gate flanked by stone angels with severed heads. A yard full of tangled balls of thorn trees and wild flowers and barbed wire and stiff yellow grass. An awning, double doors, a chimney. I pressed my face to the windowpane and stared into her kitchen. Fruit flies darted over the wicker basket on the table, inside which a speckled mango decayed. A bird smacked against the pendant lamp hanging near my head. It was a rufous-naped lark. Its dull eyes glazed over in a momentary daze. Then it got its wits back and lurched away, leaving a tuft of tawny feathers on the stained glass.
Where was she, my darling? I started to panic. What if she had gone outside, and got caught by Mr Man? What if he had stuffed his fist in her mouth and dragged her into an alley and done her the dirty?
‘Ayosa Ataraxis Brown!’ I yelled, turning away from her kitchen. I looked through another window. She was not there, at the groaning staircase where she sometimes sat. I ran around to the butterfly garden that was overgrown with weeds, and I found her by the broken tiered fountain. She sat prim, her white lace socks pulled up to her thighs, and her knees hugged to her chest. Her taffeta dress crackled with static. The ruffles in them were stiff, gorging alleyways into her skin.
She was all greasy pigtails and vapid face. Her mouth was red around the corners. The day before, we had gone to the marketplace to get clementines for the marmalade she wanted to make. The clementine seller took her money and said, ‘Thank you, pretty girl.’
And Ayosa had recoiled. She had squared her jaws and dug her hands in her pockets. All the way home, she would not talk to me – she was seething with rage. Later, she scrubbed her face raw with a pumice stone. She scrubbed her chin and cheeks and forehead, scraping off any encroaching prettiness.
When I found her in the butterfly garden, she was watching stink bugs and wax worms reel on the hot, cracked stone of the fountain. She looked up at me, and waved me closer to look at the insects too.
‘It’s Epitaph Day,’ I said to her.
I said it with my eyes. My darling and I, we never talked to each other with our mouths.
She said, ‘You want to build a bicycle?’
She showed me a dumpster in the middle of her yard, filled with scrap metal. We sifted through the pieces, ripped out the wires and fashioned them into a tandem bicycle. Then we rode the bicycle from one end of the yard to the other, our palms callused and our temples taut and our frocks withered in the moist air. Our right feet pounded the pedals and then our left feet pounded the pedals and then right-left, right-left, until our movements, and our noses, were filled with the scent of lavender, and our faces were raw from the thorns of prickly pears.
Then Mr Man found us. We did not see him until it was too late, until he was grabbing our bicycle by the handlebars, and saying, ‘Wait, please!’
‘Run!’ I said to my darling. She made towards the apothecary’s cottage to get help. Me, I did not wait for any type of help. I knew that there wasn’t anyone out there who could save me from the monsters. I knew that all I had was myself. I closed my eyes and turned myself inside out, so that my soft parts were tucked away and my hard parts were outside, and then I was coursing through the air and I was hacking at Mr Man and he was wailing and wailing.
‘I don’t mean to hurt you,’ he cried. ‘Look, look, I only want to show you this!’
He reached inside his breast pocket and held out a photograph. In it was my mother, wearing her bear-fur trapper-hat, and a down parka that swept over her ankles, and she was smiling that coy smile that I knew so well. Mr Man had tears trembling in his eyes, shining like opals. He said, ‘Here, take it. I will get into my car and go away now.’
This time, I was the one that ran after him, saying, ‘Wait, please!’
He was tired, he said, and needed a place he could lay down his head for a while. He had driven for days to find me. I showed him the way to the shanty by the river. It was decrepit, lopsided, leaning against a parasol tree. From its porch steps, you could see the water lapping at the rocks, and the grebes and albatrosses pecking at the writhing fish, and the jacanas sunning themselves in the sand.
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