In front of the house was a large veranda with potted plants, bright as a child’s painting, and an old urine-stained sofa set. If you sat here and held your hands between your knees, your face angled towards the gate, to the luring vastness of the outer world.
From the cluster of potted plants, to the patch of mowed grass, to the line of obedient cypress and whistling pines, to the low leaning black acacia near the gate, the trail was as clear as the path to hell.
A pair of screw-faced workmen moved the old urine-stained sofa set from the living room on the patriarch’s orders. That was three months ago.
Sitting in the wheelchair that she bit and punched as often as she wounded her own fists and teeth, she would stare fixedly at the low leaning black acacia. She discovered the power in her to open mysterious spaces in the hedge. Pursuing trails, her crippled body grew wings and flew into the open sky, to infinity.
The patriarch was thin-voiced, rotund and brusque. He changed cars, wore the finest Italian suits, kept multiple bank accounts, laughed slightly, threw money on jewelry, drunk too much and talked about how he loved Koffi Olomide’s music. A shameless philanderer he was.
Behind the house, the staircases were steep.
‘She hurt herself,’ the patriarch insisted, gulping a glassful whisky like a contest man,’ ‘your mother is suffering from backache. She will rise from the wheelchair before you blink twice.’
‘Will she really be fine like before?’ Nafula fixed a brave and daring look at his slightly inebriated father. He fumbled a little, put his shaking arms on the waist, threw a casual glance at the gleaming wheelchair and spoke angrily; ‘take your mother to the house. She needs rest.’
‘Push her to the house.’ push! Push! Push! Isn’t she helpless? Anyway, both ‘push’ and ‘take’ refer to objects; worthless objects that are incapable of motion.
‘Push me to the house,’ echoed Madam Penina. Her voice was bitter. Her crippled state was embarrassing even to herself. The two amicable student nurses from the hospital bowed a little before charging towards her. Later, house repairers came to flatten the steep terraces.
With this you would glide freely around the house like dolphins in the high seas.
Inside the house, Nafula knew it wasn’t an accident that had crippled her mother. Her father, who had lately mastered the art of avoiding people’s eyes, bore his guilt without dignity.
So much became unspoken around the house. Nafula was queer; there was no hiding the fact. Her capricious manner, her unbridled emotions, her propensity to cause ‘storms,’ marked her. She locked up a battered Paul in the bathroom and splashed freezing water on him. He shivered like a cat caught in a bucket of ice. Paul’s crime was nothing more than hiding a toy snake in her bed. After the incidence, Paul learnt the boundaries he wasn’t supposed to cross. He bought a can of kerosene and set fire to the toy snake in the backyard.
Nafula scrutinized her mother’s face for hints. Her calm was puzzling.
‘Your eyes remind me of your grandmother,’ Madam Penina said light-heartedly.
‘Tell me more about her.’
‘He loved music, Miriam Makeba and Bony M.’
‘Did he also dance?’
‘A great deal; Salsa and twisti and anything that was in vogue then.’
Nafula’s younger brother, Paul, was a student at Bungoma Boys high school. He was bookish and dreamt of pursuing law at University of Nairobi, the most prestigious university in Kenya. Waswa, bored by school routine, copied GADO’s cartoons into his drawing book. He looked at the world with pessimistic eyes, thinking it chaotic. He felt a deep affection for his father. He stole his unused diaries and stuffed them in his backpack.
Time reduced the Patriarch to a sneaky creature. He was quieter, tiptoed around the house like a thief and leapt out of the house so the children wouldn’t see him. He became a ghost. The only moments the children knew of his fleeting presence was when his quarrelling voice floated through the walls, consuming the house as it were by its fierce flames.
Nafula grew into a sour-faced young woman. A brooding solemnity and hostility marked her. It had all begun when she won a scholarship to study biotechnology at Liverpool University. Then the worst happened. Her father crushed her dream into dust. From that moment murder danced in her eyes.
Nafula knew without being told that her father was guilty. Her mother became a burden in her father’s eyes. The word divorce had entered Nafula’s ears one day while she was seated in the living room, reading Bessie Head. Her mother kept insisting on the word until a loud scream shattered the calm.
‘I said you can’t.’
‘I said I will.’
Madam Penina stared at the cluster of potted plants, the patch of mowed grass, the line of obedient cypress and whistling pines, the low leaning black acacia near the gate, searching for that escape hole that would whisk her to the other world. She yearned for a momentary reprieve from the agonies of this world. In the other world, she was young and full-bloodied. The wretched were non-members of the other world; no miserable street kids, no tricksters, no cruel husbands, no bullish characters described by Bessie Head and no anguish.
She remembered their wedding at St. Charles Catholic Church, the birth of her three children, the happiness. It tortured her spirit how the accident had reduced the litheness of her body to zero, how her dreams had shattered into a thousand uncollectable glass pieces, forever flying and never landing.
As a child, Nafula knew the frequency and tempo of her mother’s sobs. She measured the size of pain in her mother’s heart with her hands, shut her eyes and sobbed too. Her mind replayed her mother’s familiar footsteps, quite frightened, rushing across the floor to the kitchen. She locked herself up in the kitchen and leaned against the door to keep out the force of storm. Nafula never really understood this madness, her mother’s esoteric ritual. Coming from school one day she encountered her father holding a kitchen knife over her mother’s head. She was begging for her life. Nafula’s world crumbled. It is only then that she understood.
She screamed in horror and frightened her father who quickly dropped the knife, ran up the stairs to his bedroom and came down ashamed and fuming. The next sound she heard was the rambling sound of his Peugeot 504 engine racing past the open gates. She gathered the shivering woman in her arms. She wouldn’t hush her from hysterical screams.
‘Finish it off son-of-a-bitch,’ she was shouting at the top of her lungs, ‘don’t drop the knife you despicable coward. Finish it off, dog.’
‘It’s me mother,’ Nafula said weakly.
When Nafula’s mother opened her eyes and saw it was not her husband but her daughter, she quickly rose in anger, wiped her face in embarrassment and ordered Nafula to her bedroom.
‘Take off your uniform and attend to your homework,’ Madam Penina yelled like a mad woman. She then walked to her bedroom and locked herself up to shed tears of betrayal and shame. Nafula pressed her ear on the door to sob with her mother. This way, they stayed connected.
Everything changed on that sombre Sunday. No one went to church because Nafula’s father had not returned to the house the night before. The air was misty and Paul’s nose was blocked. He was lying in bed, waking up occasionally to sip on the cough syrup. It was too cold outside and Madam Penina didn’t push her wheelchair to the veranda as she would on sunny mornings. She was seated in the house watching a documentary about Botswana’s rise. Waswa was away at school, copying cartoons by GADO in his drawing book while the math teacher’s assignment sat cold on the desk. He would come home during the half term break. Nafula was in the kitchen, headphones over her head. Rihanna pumped deep in her skull. The tap was running and the sounds of clanking utensils floated in the air like badly composed music.
My daughter thinks that hers is a crazy family. She wishes that God was merciful enough to strike every member dead and save the world the trouble. Why is the devil going after her?
Nafula didn’t hear when her father’s Peugeot entered the compound. He didn’t hear when her father knocked the door open with his shoulders and went straight for her mother. She didn’t hear her mother’s screams and the sound of the damaged wheelchair as it rolled outside the front terraces. She didn’t hear as her father splintered the newly installed Sony plasma TV on the tiled floor. Rihanna pumped and pumped. It was Paul who rushed into the kitchen, knocked off the headphones from her head and shook her by the shoulders.
‘He is here,’ Paul screamed.
There was silence between them.
‘He is here,’ Paul repeated.
‘We must carry through with our plan,’ Nafula’s rage was visible. A dark cloud flashed across her face. She remembered. There was murder in her eyes.
Paul’s hands were trembling. His eyes scanned around the sink murderously. ‘Where is the knife? The devil has come.’
‘Calm down Paul.’
‘I can’t calm down, sister.’
‘Would you kill him?’
It was at this point that Nafula heard her mother’s anguished cry. It rose and died instantaneously. It cut through the air with the precision of lightening. So frigid the sounds were. She rushed out of the kitchen and found her mother on the ground. Blow after blow was landing on her recoiled body. She burst through the door and froze at the violence. Her mother had stopped crying. She now absorbed the punches indifferently like a fatalist. She even seemed to derive pleasure from the punching. Her face was swollen like a watermelon. A searing pain cut through her ribs. She tried to sing to ease the spasms of pain rippling through the pond of her body.
Nafula dashed through the hallway, locked the door to her bedroom and begun to dial on her cell phone. The picture of the lazy potbelly policeman came to her mind. Her fingers trembled with fear. She had to do it. She sighed, crossed herself and dialed 999. She instinctively knew that Paul was prepared to do worse. The phone rang for a few moments before someone picked up at the other end.
Rushing back to the living room, she found Paul’s body wriggling helplessly on the ground; fish thrown out of water, gasping for life. She bubbled with fratricidal rage. If only she could lay her hands on him, the devil! There was blood on the floor and walls but her mother was nowhere to be seen. Where was she?
She heard her father’s Peugeot car, followed by frightened screeching and dust. She was dumbfounded. She moved and sunk helplessly next to his brother’s bloodied body. Her eyes crept to the walls, at the family portraits that showed her father as the enviable patriarch, benevolent and unthreatened. She went over the gentle contours in her mother’s wedding gown, at her father’s rotund figure. She thought of her mother in a white dustcoat and stethoscope. She was young and blossoming, remarkably beautiful. Her junior brothers radiated with good health and exuberance.
‘The boy is going to survive,’ the doctor said.
Paul survived. His shoulder and thigh were bandaged heavily. A sad smile graced his lips, as if he were trying to conceal something sinister.
‘We’ve sent out our men to look for him,’ the police said.
The OCPD, potbellied and deep voiced, disembarked from the police land cruiser with a surprising swiftness. He surveyed the house with a passing interest. He skirted around the blood stains to inspect the other parts of the house.
Affluence, this is the only thought that strikes the godforsaken OCPD. He is a greedy man, I can see. He is a kind of man who would kill to live a life of luxury. Who wouldn’t? He strides around the house estimating the cost of the mahogany furniture. The chandeliers, like sparkling silver, fascinate him. He is the coveting type.
Nafula answered the questions calmly. Her usual capriciousness was gone without trace. It surprised her- the calmness. Her smiles concealed the shocking pain inside. Madam Penina underwent a series of surgeries to align broken bones. Paul was still on painkillers. Waswa was behind events. Apparently, no one wanted to saddle him with shock. It was only a matter of time before the bizarre image of a dismembered family reached him.
The firmness in her voice and the sharp focus of eyes helped her to deceive the whole wide world. Inside, she felt terrible. She felt like breaking down at their feet and wailing as loud as clan women, her hands on the hem of their dresses and trousers. She spoke to the investigative journalist from Daily Nation with a charming calmness, almost graceful. TV screens and newspapers were awash with gory images of a fratricidal family – bloodthirsty savages. Nafula wept when she read the headlines. Her image, calm as a pond, covered the front pages but the words…
Police detectives walked about the house with an air of professional detachment. This was just another homicide case for them. In their years of service, they had witnessed bizarre cases of couples slitting each other’s throats on their wedding anniversaries, men setting their family houses ablaze, brothers throwing each other over the balcony, daughters poisoning their mothers, rich men shooting their brains out in the bathtub, men throwing their bodies in front of speeding trucks, crushed corpses of drunk men on the rail tract, and so on.
The OCPD walked towards the door and a junior officer in crisp uniform and shiny boots saluted him. The face of the OCPD showed nothing but boredom, as if his being at one more crime scene nauseated him.
Events ran into each other like drunken bulls. The sick recuperated. The shock receded. The unhinged drove themselves to death.
‘How did he…?’ Madam Penina began to sob.
‘The eyewitnesses say he hit through the railing of the bridge.’
‘No one would have survived the impact.’
She broke into uncontrollable sobs. Then like magic, she blew her nose into a handkerchief and stared up.
‘Madam Penina, I have a question that perhaps can help my curiosity.’ The police officer paused to search the widow’s withered face, ‘would you have forgiven the Patriarch?’
Madam Penina struggled to suppress rage.
‘What kind of foolish question is that?’
‘Don’t be upset. The patriarch’s brother was here earlier.’
‘My brother-in-law, that pig?’
‘Yes. He thinks you killed your husband.’
‘How can that be possible?’
In a moment of fury, she turned the wheelchair toward the door. The disproportionate figure of the OCPD was disgusting. His thick neck and patronage repelled her.
She visited the mortuary to examine the formalin-soaked body. Even in death, the patriarch’s face was frowned, as if gearing up to some mischief. The memory of that fateful day came to her. She swerved the wheelchair. She sobbed between curses. Afterwards, she was easy. At the hospital canteen, she gulped an ice cold coke. Old colleagues passed by to hug and offer her consolation.
Paul and Waswa held the foremost handles of the casket at the burial. Its mahogany exterior was as sleek as a limousine. A teary Nafula passed out when the priest said the words ‘unto dust we shall return’. She wanted to yank his father’s body out of the casket and throw it back to life.
Dressed in black, Paul stood beside her mother like a soulless bodyguard, his eyes unblinking. Under a barren avocado tree not far away, Waswa shook with grief.
A desolate Miss Penina sat at the Patriarch’s grave long after the priest and the mourners departed. She recited the holy rosary and sobbed some more. A chill accompanied the sanctifying wind that swept through the frangipani trees.
She looked up into a triad of faces, bobbing like tree-picking giraffes.