It starts with a phone call one morning.
“Is that Phoebe?” A voice on the other end asks.
“Yes? Who is it?” I peer at the clock on my living room wall. I’m running late for work.
“I’m calling from Pumwani Maternity Hospital. Do you know a Leah?”
“She is my sister. Is there a problem?”
“She named you as her next-of-kin. There is a baby.”
“Is Leah okay?”
“I’m sorry! Leah didn’t make it. You need to come over.”
That’s how I learned of Leah’s death and your birth; through a stranger, on the phone.
The previous night I had tossed and turned, unable to sleep. When I did, I dreamt that Leah, who was walking off into a cloud of mist, turned, waved and was gone. I started awake, my body covered in sweat.
That’s all behind now. What lies ahead is your future. So, sleep well, my child. I’ll be back to see you, tomorrow, the day after and on all subsequent days, until you are strong. Then I’ll lift you out of your incubator, out of this nursery and carry you home. And when you are grown, and ask about the mother you never met – if she was tall, beautiful, with jet black hair, big brown eyes? Whether she smiled a lot, threw her head back when she laughed? Or if she was the quiet-type, conscious of what people thought? I will look into your eyes, playfully rub my palm against your head, and say, “Leah was beautiful, with the biggest, brownest eyes you ever saw. And a smile to light a rainy day.”
Is it not what every girl pictures her mother to be? Warm and beautiful. Always there to dry away their tears, to blow away their pain, rock them to sleep with sweet lullabies.
I, too, dream up beautiful images of my mama, your Bibi. I dream I’m a child, gazing at her feet; encased in beaded sandals. Her long fingers are manicured. Her jet-black hair shimmers in the sun. Her Kitenge gown flows from her wide-shoulders and tapers down from her narrow waist, where it is fastened with a thin leather belt. In my dreams, mama turns ever so slightly and smiles, I think. I may be wrong, though. You see, dreams are hazy, fleeting. Maybe it’s a frown. But I like to think it’s a smile. Smiles are easier to imagine on mothers; easier to live with.
On some nights, I’m surrounded by thick, grey fog, and it’s impossible to see beyond my outstretched arms. Yes! My arms are always stretched, reaching out to her, trying to touch her slippery form, assuage the doubts in my mind; the mind of a child.
Ghosts from my yesterdays fight for space in my head, my dreams, and memory. I find hints in scents – lemon fragrance, mint, jasmine, the mouth-watering aroma of tilapia, sizzling in Kimbo-fat, cinnamon in fried-mandazis, spices in chicken-pilau. How could I ever forget the chapatis mama fried most Sundays? The crisp chapatis we’d wolf down before father staggered home, cursing. The sim-sim balls Leah could never have enough of. Colours, too, trigger memories of mama. They peep out from the haze. Soft hues of pink that fade to near translucence reveal mama’s smooth-face. You see, like a rainbow, mama was full of colours. She was like a butterfly, fluttering in the wind of life, hard to pin down, but ever present. She didn’t need to holler like father for us to know she was there. And what of my father? Do you want to know about him, too? If he was strong and handsome. If he had a deep baritone voice? If he loved our mother? Is that not what we wish of our fathers?
Yes! I’ll talk a little about him. But believe me when I say, the less said about that man, the better. Like with most terrifying things, memories of father are hard and cold. They make little pretence at ambiguity. My father’s images are unapologetic, jagged, sharp, garish outright nasty. The colours that accompany his images are red, blue and black; like the bruises he left on our faces. They are like the colour of his eyes, when the demon-of-drink had taken a firm grip of him. The acrid smell of alcohol and tobacco accompany his memory. The sounds around him are jarring. Words like “bitch,” “slut” and “freak” ring out and surround his memory. Shards of broken trust litter his memory. I tiptoe, avoiding their sharp edges, but like with most unpleasant experiences, they linger, prick the skin, and draw blood.
It’s raining. The rain thrums out a lulling rap against the nursery’s roof. It’s a good sign. Leah entered the world with the rain. It’s the reason Mama named her Akoth, the bringer of rain. Rain. Rain, go away. Come another Saturday, Leah would sing and spin in the rain when she was little. She would turn perfect spins that could have shamed a pirouetting ballerina. Other times, she would spread her arms like she was a plane and race about the rain until she was soaked. A day or two later, she would be down with a cold. I think the name “Akoth” would be a fitting one for you, too.
This morning, I missed the city hopper bus to this place and took a matatu. In it were two girls probably nine and twelve. I couldn’t tell for sure, but they were certainly adolescents. They acted like sisters. At some point, the younger of the two stood up and rummaged through the pockets of her school uniform, looking for something. The two exchanged worried glances. It wasn’t long before the rude conductor in a red, gold, and green, woolen cap walked up to them, his hand outstretched. He threatened to throw them out of the matatu if they did not pay the fare. The older girl said her sister had lost her money. She offered to pay for her sister and walk the rest of the way, herself. I intervened and paid their fare. They told me their names were Mueni and Mwikali. Mueni was in class four, and Mwikali was in six. A couple of stops later, the two got off. I watched Mueni slip her hand into her sister’s as they walked away. They reminded me of Leah and me.
I remembered the time when Leah was twelve and I was fifteen. When she was in form 1 B and I in 3A. When her teacher, Mrs. Otieno, wanted to know how Leah got the nasty bruise on her left eye.
“She ran into our living room door,” I said.
“But your sister said she ran into the bedroom door.”Mrs. Otieno’s tone rose a notch higher.
I glued my eyes to the terrazzo floor.
“Is there a problem at home you need to tell me about?” Mrs. Otieno’s voice softened.
“No!” I shook my head.
Maybe I should have told her the truth. Maybe I should have told her about our father.
But how do you tell a story of betrayal? How do you tell a story of trust; shattered into a thousand pieces by its very custodian? It’s the reason I will not walk you through every street of memory. Neither will I open all the doors to the rooms of our life. Some streets I will avoid, just like some doors I will keep closed. Especially those that house the memory of father. I know, I know. They say, a good knowledge of one’s past helps shape one’s future. But believe me, there is a part of our past that is better forgotten. Parts that are better left to gather dust. Parts that deserve to remain interred, in the shadowy caverns of memory. I will not be leaving out those parts, to protect Father’s memory. No! No! Our father is not deserving of that. No one can protect his memory. No one can save him from the road to perdition. I will be doing it to protect you. To give you a chance at life.
The huge, white clock on the nursery wall has struck six. Twice, the wide-shouldered nurse has scrunched her face and shot me harried looks. Got to go. I’ll be back tomorrow.
Last night I dreamt Leah was a bird, learning to fly. Her plume was the colour of the rainbow, her frame that of a dove. She unfurled her tiny wings, and rapped out a timid tapa, tapa, tapa as she tried to rise above the ground. She went at it again and again until she limped from the weight of her countless attempts. She tried one last time and then she was soaring, lapping up the open space. Intoxicated by the feeling of freedom, by the wind under her wings, the sun behind her back, she climbed higher and higher.
“There could be hawks up there,” I shouted out a warning.
“There are hawks everywhere,” she shouted back, and she was right. The hawk Leah had to contend with lived right in our nest.
It rained hard this morning, and everything was a mess. You’ll grow up to learn how the whole city is thrown into a spin when it rains; how, suddenly, everyone is in a hurry to God-knows-where. Oblivious to speeding cars, pedestrians will dash across the wet streets. Drivers will overlap and cause traffic gridlocks. The City of Nairobi just goes insane when it rains. It’s the reason I’m late. The reason I’m dripping wet. I use my face towel to stanch the rain from my face, my hair, and my clothes. I take a peek through the glass frame on the door to your nursery and an empty incubator stares at me.
“No!” I scream.
Oh God! Let it not be…
My hands shake.
My feet crumble from under me.
My heart sinks.
“The baby is fine. We just moved her to another incubator.” A hand nudges me.
I rise from the cold, tiled-floor, to find the wide-shouldered nurse towering over me. For the first time, she is smiling.
“God bless you!” I hug her tight.
They need documents at the hospital: Leah’s birth certificate and mine. That’s a good sign. It means you could soon be home. At home, I pull out Leah’s suitcase from under the bed, click it open, and there is a faint fragrance of jasmine. Leah loved Jasmine and would go crazy when she came across Jasmine-scented soap or candles. However, it’s the sketch I find at the bottom of the suitcase that brings tears to my eyes. I still remember well the Sunday Leah did the sketch. We had just returned from church when she suggested we pass through the park. There she plunked onto the grass, pulled out a paper and pencil from her bag, and started to sketch. The bougainvillea bush, the fountain in the background, the bird in flight. She’d captured it all so perfectly. I still picture her lips pressed tight and her brow furrowed as she sketched. Back then, I’d thought it was concentration. Now I know it was pain. The pain of burdens borne alone.
I think the bird in the sketch was Leah.
Now that they moved you to an open incubator, for the first time they allow me to touch you. Hesitant at first, I pause before reaching out. You still look so frail, so vulnerable, your scrawny legs kicking out. Heart beating, I place a finger against your tiny, pink-fingers. And when they wrap around my pinkie, I feel your strength and can tell you’ll pull through. You look just like Leah when she was a baby, a strong resemblance that soothes my soul.
is a Kenyan lawyer who is almost convinced he writes better than he lawyers. He resides in Kisumu; by the shores of the world’s second largest fresh water lake the locals call Nam Lolwe, but the rest of the world calls, Lake Victoria. His debut middle grade novel, Playing a Dangerous Game, was published by Norton Young Readers in 2021, and is a Junior Library Guild gold standard selection. He was shortlisted for the Golden Baobab writing prize, 2010 and has been published in, Kikwetu Literary magazine, Munyori Literary Journal and Brittle Paper amongst others.