You are not exactly sure how you got here, so while the Surgeon slices into your chest you close your eyes and rewind.
Your mother always brought up the story of your birth whenever anyone made a comment, no matter how passing, about the rain. “You know when Kyallo was born it started to rain just like that” —at this point she’d usually snap her fingers, although if there was a table nearby she wouldn’t hesitate to bang on it— “and it hadn’t rained for two good months. I wanted to call him Blessing but his father said it is a girl’s name.”
The showiness of your birth made your mother pour all the hopes she’d had for your brothers, both of whom had made her a grandmother before they finished high school, into you. As a child you had things your brothers had only dreamt of: crisp books and toys, trips to Shark Palace every time your report card held a glittering ‘1’. Even then her gifts made you uncomfortable; they were like evidence collected for a crime you hadn’t committed yet. They seemed to say, “See what I have done for you, see my love? Now make me proud.”
You still remember the first time you saw ugliness. Your brother’s eldest daughter, three years your senior, had been caught shooting balls of spit and paper at people through Biro pen tubes. Your mother (her grandmother) punished her for five minutes, and you shrieked through every one of them as though it was you she was spanking with a straightened plastic hanger. Yes, that was probably the beginning.
You were eight the next time. Every day for two weeks you stole eggs from your mother’s chicken coup to give to the emaciated woman who begged in front of the pharmacy on your way to school. Her placard, held in place by four stones, read: “PLZ HELP. HOME DESTROYED BY GRENADE,” like a telegram. You’d looked at her and felt a sharp needle of hunger lodge itself in your stomach; you wondered how anyone could live like that.
You were careful to take only the most negligible eggs, and you might have gone on for a long time if you hadn’t tripped on a slab of concrete one day and broken the eggs in your pocket. The woman in front of the pharmacy tried to help, squeezing the sticky yolk into an old tin, but nothing could be done about the smell. That day you crept home slowly; you knew your mother’s nose could identify a single rotten tomato in a jungle of fresh ones.
She was ruthless.
“I will not have thieves for sons!” She screamed, over and over, as she struck your buttocks with a coat hanger you suspected had been bought for that very purpose. Just the previous month one of your brothers had been discharged from the army for stealing from his fellows, and as she said those words again and again you wondered whether she was saying them to you or to herself.
Then, at eleven, you did something that might have been considered brave if you were big and strong, like your brothers. You, however, had as much endurance as a blade of grass, so it was more stupid than brave. The first fighter was a short, perpetually angry girl whose mother was a big name in the war and whom all the teachers feared. The other was a bespectacled boy who had dared to call her ‘Shrek’ during lunch break. The girl’s face clouded over; she hadn’t seen the movie, but the dining hall’s collective laughter brought her to her feet and to the boy in two strides. The teacher on duty approached the scene, saw the girl, and was suddenly very urgently needed somewhere else.
The girl slapped the boy twice, on both sides of his face, and you felt the sting of it on your cheeks, sharp and ringing. The dining hall swelled with noise; your schoolmates had been dying for a show since power cuts had forced the school to cancel entertainment. She grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to the middle of the room so that everyone could get a view. That meant your friends were too distracted to stop you from running there and hurling your plate of half-eaten rice and beans at the girl’s back. Everyone fell silent; it was almost too good to be true. The teacher on duty returned just then, flanked by reluctant-looking colleagues, and roared at the three of you to kneel down.
Your punishment was the harshest-piling cow dung into dunes under November sun—because wasting the closely-rationed government food was equal to treason. You also became a target of the girl, a situation that saw you avoiding dark classrooms and empty toilets for the remainder of your primary school days.
You almost killed your mother in high school. By then you were in Form Three and you thought you had learnt to control the softness of your heart, no more of that Mother Teresa nonsense. Then he came into your life and said, “Wee ulisikia wapi?”
His pain was an exquisite, ever-present thing, it radiated off him like a black sun. Other people merely found him depressing; for you being around him was having your heart hammered to pieces. So you made it your mission to help him, but how does one mend a broken heart? Not with the rare gifts of bread and meat, traded for torch batteries with the junior cook-the boy only took it for pity. Not a strategically placed paper during exams; he was a better student than you anyway. Not help getting a girlfriend, for it wasn’t a girl he was mourning for, but a boy he had lost to the war, someone warm and sweet and funny. A little like you, he said.
You kissed him for the first time under the shade of an avocado tree behind the kitchens. You felt his pain begin to ebb away like the evening tide, and you wondered, surprised, if that was all it was going to take. You allowed yourself to sink into it, the knowing swirls of his tongue and lips, the softness of his hair in your hands. Maybe if you weren’t enjoying it so much you would have heard the hushed footfalls of the junior cook behind you. One moment you were invisible lovers, the next you were enshrined in the searing white light of the junior cook’s brand new torch amid shouts of “Shoga! Mashoga hawa!” And the in-case-of-emergency broomsticks everyone kept under their beds finally found a use.
Your mother was all tears in the Principal’s office. She looked at your swollen eye, the caked blood on your shirt, and said, “And the way we have given you everything, Kyallo? What will your father say?”
You wanted to tell her, “He’s not going to say anything because they hanged all the deserters last week, they said so on the radio.” And so you did. Her eyes widened with horror and she made to dive at you, but midway her body started to tick like a sausage dipped in oil. She fell to the floor with her hand clutched around her chest as the Principal frantically rang the school nurse. It was your mother’s first heart attack.
Getting expelled turned out to be a blessing in disguise- now you could join the army by choice rather than by draft like most of your age-mates. By the time they rolled in, you were already used to being roused at 4 AM by the droning reveille, you could already carry a load the equivalent of a small cow for forty kilometres at a time. Even though you were only nineteen like the rest of them, they were drawn to you like flies to honey, and for a while you tasted the sort of popularity you’d never been granted at school. You should have enjoyed it while it lasted because, when your regiment was called in, everything went to hell.
In the first battle, you broke formation to help a young boy and his father cross the fire line safely. On your way to the second, you tossed an entire carton of Chef Biscuits—all that was left of your regiment’s supply—over to the half-naked children who couldn’t even chase the truck for a metre without stopping to catch their breaths. The colonel, a stout, balding man, was gentler than you expected. He told you to take a three-day break, then either join them at the next town or go home.
The small town they left you at had only heard stories of the war—people still roamed the streets after 8 PM, buildings still stood whole. When you said you were a soldier at the bar, they said, “Ah, now how can we charge you?” and promised free drinks all night. They could still afford to give drinks for free.
You sat alone in the corner with only a Guinness and mosquitoes for company, making ‘Don’t Come Near’ faces at anyone who looked your way. It worked for the better part of the night—and then the Surgeon showed up.
“That’s my seat,” she said, but she was already pulling up another chair. She smiled and looked at you wordlessly, her arms folded across her chest. She didn’t look like she was planning to say anything soon, so to chase away the quiet you asked her what she was doing at the edge of a warzone, and she tossed the question back at you as easily as if it was a basketball. The beer loosened your tongue. You found yourself telling her things you’d never said aloud, recounting all the times you had got into trouble for somebody else. You made her laugh and pout, her heart-shaped earrings catching the bulb’s light, Bob Marley crooning from scratchy speakers.
She, in turn, made you cry. You don’t know how. Maybe it was when she mentioned that her parents’ shamba had wilted because of gas poisoning or something, but once you started you couldn’t stop. The Surgeon just sat there, perfectly poised, as you made noises you had not known could come from humans. When you were done, she leaned into her chair and said, “I know your problem.”
The Surgeon took a sip of her vodka. “You have an inside-out heart,” she continued. “I can fix that for you, if you want.”
And now you are here, on your back on a couch in her flat, watching the scalpel sink into your chest.
She’d told you that she was sorry, she hadn’t paid the electricity token yet, as she drew open the curtains and lit a candle. Now moonlight leaks through the mosquito net on the window in sharp cylinders, painting the Surgeon’s face with silver dots. You are a little worried because you didn’t see her sterilise the blade, but she’s already started and it would be rude to interrupt, so instead you follow the dance of two spiders scuttling across the plaster ceiling, humming a song under your breath.
“I’m done!” The Surgeon proclaims. You lift your head and see the perfect circle of missing flesh in your chest, dripping red onto the cheap leso spread over the couch. She is holding your heart up like a trophy. Watching it by the soft flame of the candle, you wonder whether all hearts have those streaks of gold on them or if it’s just yours.
“It’s very pretty,” the Surgeon says, in a tone usually reserved for complimenting pedicures. Blood creeps between her fingers and down her arm. “Should I turn it inside-out for you or do you want a new one?”
You sit upright, considering. The breeze whistles into the hole in your chest. “A new one, please.”
She keeps the hearts in a faded leather suitcase under her wall unit. She drags it out, puts it on the table and together you examine the hearts. As she describes them a childish excitement enters her voice, words tripping over each other like she’s been saving them for a long time.
“This one,” she says, “this one is from a pastor in my hometown. He wanted to stop looking at people’s daughters—see how the veins and arteries criss-cross like little-girl braids? A girl who couldn’t choose between two lovers gave me this one, that’s where that gash in the middle comes from. This one came from a shoga like you, imagine it was just normal? I thought that if I punctured it the blood would be coloured rainbow, but no, just regular red. I covered this one with diamonds because its owner wanted a soul as beautiful as her face. She gave it back because she said it made her hard—as if being heartless is better. This one is a dog’s. Don’t look at me like that. I try to throw it away but it keeps coming back.
“And this one.” She lifts your heart up to the light. It ticks softly, like a bomb. “A soldier, a boy, gave me this one. He was blessed with a heart of gold and he called it a curse. He was so ready to believe—they always are—that all it took was someone to turn it inside-out for him. I will keep his in the middle like a king’s.” She suddenly seems ancient, her face wrinkled like the leather of your boots.
“If only I could give him something in return…”
“At least he tried to live for others.”
“No.” You lunge for your heart, but she digs her nails into its flesh and you collapse, blood spewing from your mouth in crimson geysers.
“He will not be forgotten,” the Surgeon says, and you know that her solemn nod is the last thing you’ll ever see. She squeezes the heart again. The world is filled with a dazzling white, then nothing.
Image: Rosy via Pixabay