Mweni let her eyes wander to the phone. She licked her lower lip, sighed, and elongated her right arm towards it. She stopped herself midway and began shaking her head frantically. Her doctor had advised against the action she was about to take. Had she been weak? Perhaps she had. Mweni had spent months with a phone pressed against her left ear. She used her left ear because it was her good ear. The one on the right ferried vocal messages to her brain in extremely low tones, at times these tones were indecipherable. Mweni groaned as she slightly bent to pick a bread crumb from her couch. She blew air through her gritted teeth as she guided her weary body to the leather couch. She let out a sigh of relief when her derriere settled in the comfy cushion and lightly chuckled when a fart sound emerged from the contact. She abruptly stopped as a lone memory resurfaced. A pool of tears formed in her eyes as quickly as the laughter had formed in her throat. Who could have known that depression knew no age? Mweni sighed once again before angling her head towards the phone. Her body began to quake as heat steadily rose up to her neck and face. She suddenly felt breathless, her head dangerously light.
Mweni…come to me.
Mweni’s eyes widened, her mouth dried. Yes, this was what insanity felt like, this was how insanity appeared in front of a mirror.
Mweni…do not be scared.
A peal of high-pitched laughter escaped Mweni’s throat. This was it, she was finally having a mental breakdown. Her phone was speaking to her. No, her phone was beckoning her.
Come to me…I know you want to.
Did she? Did she want to or did she need to? Was it a necessity or a desire? Mweni released a breathy sigh before folding both her fists. She then proceeded to plunge them into her leather sofa and use them for support as she weakly stood up. Each step was heavier than the last as she made her way toward the phone. She dreaded reaching it, the inanimate device that was summoning her. Once she was in front of it, she paused. Mweni stood there, rooted on the spot, trying to recall when her spirit had lost all resolve. Was this what her life had come to? Depressive episodes that led her to witness daunting hallucinations? As she thought about all of this, her eyes flickered to the large portrait of her on the wall. In it, was her gorgeous man, General Kunta Majimbogi.
Mweni did always love a man in a uniform.
* * *
“Your actual name is Kunta?”
He chuckled before grunting, seemingly forgetting he had a nasty wound on his side. He wriggled on the thin mattress, attempting to find a comfortable position to nurse his pain. Unfortunately for him, there was none.
“Relax okay? The more you move around, the harder it is to sew this up, the more-”
“…the more pain I will feel. Yes, Mweni, I know…I have been here before remember?”
Mweni fought a smile. He had remembered her name. The way it had rolled off his tongue had been beautiful. She felt weak in her knees and her heartbeat had significantly heightened. Mweni shifted her bodyweight towards her tray and blindly looked through it for tissue forceps. When she retrieved them, she turned to find a smiling Kunta. Wait, was that really his name?
“So the Lieutenant is giving us a night off tomorrow…Go dancing with me at the disco, we could grab some mutura earlier and maybe even a cup of tail soup-”
Mweni’s tone shifted from friendly to brusque. Even her movements turned stiff. She worked quickly and efficiently as an awkward silence enveloped them. She could feel Kunta’s eyes boring through the side of her face. Mweni noticed how his breath became more labored. She was not sure whether this had been caused by her rejection or the immense pain he must have been undergoing. Kunta remained silent throughout the suture. The wound had clearly been inflicted by a knife or a miniature machete. Mweni would have loved to hear the story behind the mysterious wound; all battle stories intrigued her. Perhaps the story would have been more enticing over tail soup and mutura but…Mweni sighed once she was done with her task and watched as Major General Kunta slowly sat up and planted his bare feet on the cool floor. The military soldier did not flinch or groan as he bent down to put on his boots and for some twisted reason, Mweni found this endearing.
“Thank you nurse Mweni.”
Mweni did not peel her eyes away from the tall, thin, and caramel-skinned man. She enjoyed how he carried himself with an air of importance. How he possessed a bounce in his gait despite his wound and apparent lack of muscles. How he nodded a greeting to his officers who were also receiving medical care. How he smiled at Old Mary, the nurse supervisor. Perhaps what Mweni enjoyed most of all was how Kunta wore his uniform. There was something appealing about a man in uniform. In fact, all the men that had ever come close to bending their knee for Mweni had all worn uniforms. Finally, after he had vanished from sight, Mweni let out a strained sigh as she clutched her chest. After the wave of pain had passed, Mweni raised her head and found Old Mary’s eyes on her.
* * *
Mweni had been a nurse for ten years before she made the hefty decision of leaving Nakuru General Hospital. She had joined a close friend, Shaban, in traveling to the border of Kenya and Somalia where the Kenyan Defense Forces had disbursed some of its soldiers. There had been news of a brewing war and everyone knew that prevention was better than a thousand Kenyans perishing. Mweni had been stationed at a dingy clinic with few resources and dim lighting. During her first days, she had wanted to quit. She had even gone as far as packing her clothes and writing a resignation letter. But then she had felt pain sear across her chest. She had bitten her lower lip and blinked rapidly to keep her scorching tears at bay. This episode reminded her that she needed to stay where she was. Seconds after the pain had elapsed, Mweni had looked up and yelped. Old Mary had been staring at her through the crack of her door.
After two months, Mweni had begun feeling at home. She made friends with the rest of the nurses. She snuck out of the military base on weekends to go dancing with random Privates from the barracks. She became familiar with the border slang and learned how to speak Somali. Mweni developed a deep love for her new home. She found her much craved peace in the chaos of gunshots, screams, and wounded soldiers. She even rediscovered her love for poetry and began reciting it to her friends when mayhem dwindled and her grim reality began to sink in. Perhaps the thing that made her feel at home in that strange, chaotic place were the stories, the heroic stories. She had heard plenty during her time there and she still hungered for more. These stories made her perceive death differently. She began seeing this rite of passage as a path to victory.
But she was no hero.
Kunta had been brought in one afternoon by his comrades. His right thigh had been bleeding profusely. He had been shot while chasing a man carrying a colossal of weapons. According to Kunta’s companions, Kunta had found this behavior wanting and had proceeded to shadow the man. Upon noticing this, the man had suddenly taken off, vanishing into a sketchy area. Just as he was closing in on the man, Kunta was shot by a hidden assailant. By the time his comrades arrived at the scene, the suspicious man had disappeared, so had the shooter. The story had kept Mweni company as she operated on Kunta. As usual, a nurse had to perform a gunshot operation because the doctors at the camp were not enough. The anesthesia shipment had not arrived that week so Kunta had been awake throughout the procedure. He had groaned from time to time but not once had he shed a tear. Later that evening, he had asked her name and requested a favor. Mweni had been flustered during their conversation, she could not recall a time when she was so nervous. This was strange considering she lived in a war zone. Once she heard Kunta’s request, however, she burst out laughing. She continued to laugh on her way to the canteen.
The tough soldier who had not cried during his surgery wanted a lollipop.
* * *
Major General Kunta was a patient man. After his first rejection, the military man returned with a counter-proposal. This time he offered Mweni a night out under the stars where he would narrate his journey. To make the offer more enticing, Kunta offered to tell his childhood stories. Mweni laughed before muttering a cool “no” and walking away. Time passed and Kunta was promoted to be the Lieutenant-General. The ceremony was brief and bland. Mostly because that month had been rough; they had lost six impeccable soldiers. That evening, Kunta had visited the nurses’ residence and requested to speak to Mweni. Old Mary had blatantly refused, claiming that her nurses needed sleep, not sex. Apparently, this had not shocked Kunta who had simply opted to collect pebbles and throw them at Mweni’s window. Mweni had awakened to the rapping sounds of pebbles hitting her window. When she pulled the window open, a stone flew into her mouth. They had remained frozen in their respective spots for what seemed like an eternity before they both keeled forward snorting with laughter. It was then that Mweni finally spat her salivated pebble. After the shocking, yet entertaining episode had passed, Mweni mouthed “no” before snapping her window shut and dashing to her bed. That night she cried until she was numb.
Dancing, food, stories, and romance had all failed in convincing Mweni to go out with Kunta. After months passed with no new advances from Kunta, Mweni began entertaining the thought that the man had simply lost interest in her. Mweni’s theory was proven right when she spotted Kunta talking to one of her colleagues, Shaban. Shaban was the close friend Mweni had joined in coming to the military base. Shaban had made this tough decision after her third husband left her for a younger woman because she could not give birth. Instead of supporting their daughter, Shaban’s family termed her a disgrace and banished her. Two days later, Shaban applied to become one of the volunteers for the nurse military program. When she got accepted, Mweni also applied, and a week later, the two of them were on a train to the border. They both shared the need to find peace in chaos.
One afternoon after a shift, Mweni found Shaban sprawled on her bed reading an old issue of Parents Magazine.
“Listen to this Mweni, a parent should consider talking to their child before inflicting physical punishment on them…can you believe this garbage? The only language a child hears is a cane, a nice, thick cane!”
Mweni rolled her eyes before kicking off her shoes. Shaban had always possessed the flair for drama.
“What do you want Shaban…I am tired.”
“Too tired for dancing?”
“Extremely tired from dancing…you guys go without me.”
“This is new…You are the life of the party…Old Mary calls you disco girl…”
“Old Mary is half-blind…and really old.”
“Old Mary gave you a cool nickname.”
Mweni shook her head and flashed Shaban a smile. Shaban mirrored the act and patted a spot next to her on Mweni’s bed. Mweni trudged forward, ignoring the loud voice in her head that was screaming, “Shaban is a traitor!”
“I have been meaning to tell you something…the Lieutenant-General asked me on a date.”
“And I am your mother?”
“Why are you telling me as if I would deny you permission to go out with a gorgeous man?”
“So you think he is gorgeous?”
Mweni let out a frustrated sigh before throwing her weight on the metallic bed. Her squeaky bed protested. She could feel the cool metal against her back.
“Go out with him Shaban.”
“You would not mind?”
Mweni suddenly sat up, her chest heaving and her eyes wide. When she spoke, her voice quaked with anger.
“Why would I mind? Am I your mother? Am I his wife? You two are adults, go do adult things!”
Shaban appeared alarmed at first but then she broke into a series of guffaws. When she finally spoke it was in between laughter.
“Wow…what has gotten into you today? I am only asking because I know he was chasing you a whiiiiile back.”
Mweni’s next response came through clenched teeth.
“It was not that long ago.”
“What did you say?”
Suddenly, Mweni felt exhausted by this whole exchange. Why was she fighting facts? She had feelings for Kunta and she did not want her closest friend to date him. Period.
“Don’t go out with him. I like him.”
Mweni had uttered these words lowly. As if saying them out loud would lead to the dissolving of the world. Her head was lowered, her eyes resolute on an old, abandoned piece of gum stuck on the base of her roommate’s bed. Mweni mechanically stood and headed to her roommate’s bed. She then crouched and began peeling the aged, brown gum off of the bed. She was so engrossed in her activity that she did not hear her door creak open.
“Now, was that so hard to say?”
Mweni had abandoned her task, slowly shifted her body weight, and craned her neck. She had gasped when she finally confirmed her suspicion; the voice that had spoken had belonged to Kunta. Shaban had proceeded to excuse herself from Mweni’s room. As she left, she winked at her stunned friend whose fingertips were covered with dried, old gum.
Finally, the Lieutenant-General got his wish.
* * *
“How did you get her to do it? Shaban is the most loyal person I know…”
“So why did you instantly believe that she would betray you by entertaining my advances?”
“Simple. Not even Old Mary can resist your charm. Honestly, a part of me could not blame her.”
Kunta chuckled before taking another generous bite of his mutura. Mweni had instantly noticed how he enjoyed them. As a nurse, she wanted to tell him how unhealthy his addiction was. As a woman, she giggled nonstop each time he moaned because of his beloved mutura.
“It was her idea.”
Kunta raised his hand and pointed at his mouth. Once again he had taken a large bite of his poison. They were walking outside the barracks. A risky maneuver that they both found thrilling. He was clad in a military uniform. The outfit was fitting, unlike the others, she had seen him in. Mweni scarcely wondered if he had borrowed it for this very occasion. A whole Lieutenant-General, borrowing a uniform. Ha!
“She said she was tired of our song and dance and that you deserved happiness.”
“I will kill her.”
“You want to kill the woman who wants nothing but to see you happy?”
Kunta choked on his mutura as laughter escaped his throat.
“You are one stubborn woman.”
“And you are one stubborn man.”
Kunta suddenly threw away the remnants of his mutura and grabbed Mweni’s arm. He then pulled her aggressively towards him.
“I have waited a lifetime to do this.”
His pepper-draped breath fanned Mweni’s face. She had stopped breathing altogether. She too had been waiting for that moment a long time. Kunta closed the distance between them. He took his time with the kiss, biting and nibbling her lips before finally allowing their tongues to meet. Mweni, on the other hand, had never been patient. She held his face and stood on the tips of her toes, deepening their kiss. When they finally pulled apart for air, they were both heaving. The wave of pain took Mweni by surprise. She leaned forward, digging her nails into Kunta’s arms. She lost her grip as her strength left her and she began sinking to the ground. She did not reach it, however, as Kunta held her, steadying her enough so that she was lying against his chest. Mweni heard him shouting her name, she could not respond. Before she lost consciousness, she remembered why she had rejected Kunta so many times.
She did not have long to live.
* * *
“Six months or less…”
“And there is nothing that can be done?”
“No. There is a reason she came here Lieutenant-General.”
“Oh, my God…she came here to die.”
Mweni kept her eyes closed and only fluttered them open when Kunta and Old Mary left. Tears fell on either side of her face, dampening her pillow. This had never happened before. She was used to the waves of pain but passing out? Her heart was finally failing. Just when she had taught it how to love.
Kunta came to see her every day. He brought lollipops and war stories, often ignoring Mweni’s constant weeping, labored breathing, and painful moans. Her condition was rapidly deteriorating. This did not seem to bother Kunta. He treated their visits like an operation; not once did he cry. The news of her condition spread like wildfire and many of her friends came to see her. Shaban’s first visit had been awful. Mweni had never disclosed any information about her condition. Shaban felt betrayed that she had to find out about her heart failure with everyone else. They wound up crying and cussing death. Shaban visited her the following day and demanded that her friend share her date details. Mweni gladly narrated the evening’s events, conveniently leaving out the part where she passed out on Kunta’s chest.
A month after her collapse, Mweni was discharged. She requested her friends to treat her in the same manner that they always did. Surprisingly, they conceded to her hard request. For four months, Mweni worked tirelessly as a combat nurse, went dancing with her friends, gossiped with Shaban, drank tea with Old Mary, and went on dates with Lieutenant-General Kunta.
Mweni was seated in her room watching a tree shed leaves when Kunta burst through the door. He had an awestruck expression on his face.
“Why do you look like you have just seen me naked?”
Kunta, taken aback by the inquiry, chuckled before proceeding to join Mweni on the bed.
“They are going to make me General, Mweni.”
Mweni let out a high-pitched scream before embracing Kunta. They laughed in bliss before falling together on her bed. Finally, he had achieved his dream. Soon, the laughter died in their throats as reality sunk in.
“Mweni…I am irrevocably in love with you.”
Mweni’s whole body began trembling with tears.
“It’s not fair…”
“Shshssh…I know Mweni…I know. You my love will live forever.”
They made love that evening and spent the night in each other’s arms. The following day, after Kunta’s ceremony, Mweni was rushed to the clinic, her heart had given up.
* * *
Mweni’s trembling hand grabbed her phone. She held it against her chest before placing it next to her ear. After the fourth ring, a voice pierced through the silent, drab house.
“This is General Kunta Majigambo…If I do not come to the phone look for me at the nearest mutura vendor or ask Mweni where I am…she is, after all, the one who made me record this nonsense.”
Mweni’s hand dropped to her side, she was too weak to keep holding onto the phone. The device slid against Mweni’s ear and fell to the floor. She was the one who had made him do it. They had been sitting in her room and Mweni had been chattering excitedly about how phones had a new voice mail feature. She had taught him how to make a recording of his voice, he had protested at first but finally conceded. Now, it was the only thing she had left of him. Her peace in the chaos.
The same day when she had collapsed, there had been an assassination attempt on the new General. Kunta had been shot on the glabella. He had died on the spot. Mweni wailed as memories began flooding her mind. She recalled waking up to the news of Kunta’s death. She recalled how Old Mary had told her that Kunta’s heart was in her chest. She recalled how Shaban told her that Kunta had made her promise that in case he met his demise on the battlefield, his heart would be placed in Mweni’s. Had he known? Had he orchestrated the assassination as a twisted way to save her life? Was that why he had never wept or spoke of her impending death? Was this why he had told her that she would live forever.
Mweni fleeted her eyes to the large portrait. The picture was from the day of the assassination, the same day Kunta had attained his dream. Slowly, Mweni placed her wrinkly, trembling hand over her chest.
Oh, how she missed her man in uniform.
Image: Hans Isaacson (Unsplash modified)