POETRY & PROSE
like a thief in a crowded street
you stole my heart
like the soft cords of a violin
you tuned my life
shaped it like fine clay
and molded it to fit yours
then sat back
and was satisfied
like a deer in the wilderness
I reached out to you
like a duck among swans
I claimed your love
and held the prize to my heart
and never letting go
and was rewarded
In so short a time
we found love
In so short a time
we conquered all
and were blessed
I remember how your hands lingered on mine when we first met; the way you smiled, held my gaze and said hello.
I remember how your hands trembled on our wedding day when you raised my hand high so that everyone in the church could see you slip the ring on my finger.
I remember how you gently held our daughter in your arms the night she was born and how she trustingly clutched your little finger in her tiny fist.
I also remember the first time you punched me in the face and how you roughly pushed me to the ground before you started kicking me.
I remember the feel of your hands wrapped tightly around my neck as you warned me of the fate that awaited me if I dared to leave and take our daughter away from you.
I remember listening quietly as our friends spoke of your infidelity and later asking myself whether you touched those women as gently as you used to touch me and whether they had equally felt the pain of your fists on their cheeks.
I remember looking at your lifeless body lying in your coffin, at the rigid hands that used to torment me, hands that were no longer curled into fists.
I remember the questioning glances at your funeral as I threw a fistful of soil on your coffin and then tearlessly watched while your grave was filled with earth.
All I could think of as I led our sobbing daughter away from your fresh grave, was that I hoped your hands would be the first to rot, the first to fill the termites’ bellies.
I advised her to leave him the first time he hit her but he bought her flowers and chocolate and promised with tears in his eyes that he would never hit her again. He still hits her but he no longer buys her flowers and chocolate. Instead, he says it’s her fault for always making him angry. She believes him and spends hours on her knees praying to God to make her a better person, worthy of her husband’s love. She covers her bruises with makeup and masks her heartache with radiant smiles while she waits for God to answer her prayers. I know she’ll never leave him.
I advised her to leave him the first time he cheated on her but he bought her flowers and chocolate and promised with tears in his eyes that he would never be unfaithful again. He still cheats on her but he no longer buys her flowers and chocolate. Instead, he says it’s her fault for she had let herself go. She believes him and spends hours in the gym trying to firm her flabby arms, sagging breasts, and soft belly. He runs around with young girls and hardly looks at her while she tries in vain to restore youthfulness to her aging body. I know she’ll never leave him.
She has met the man of her dreams who buys her flowers and chocolate and promises to cherish her till her dying day. He has promised never to hit her or look at other women. She believes him and spends hours singing his praises while we quietly listen. One day she’ll find out about his married mistress and the children he’s refused to acknowledge. She will spend hours on her knees praying to God to heal her broken heart. She will come to us seeking advice and consolation. We will give her the same advice she’s given us over the years knowing full well that she’ll never leave him.
He crept into my bed in the middle of the night and lay heavily on top of me.
“Shh, shh…” he whispered drunkenly into my ears when I let out a terrified cry. He covered my mouth with his sweaty palms, fumbled with my nightdress, and stole my innocence.
I was only ten years old.
“Shh…” my mother whispered angrily the next morning when I tried to tell her what her husband had done to me. “Your father is a good man and he would never do such a thing. I don’t like children who tell lies. We will never speak of this again.”
Only, he wasn’t my father and he wasn’t a good man.
I quickly learned the value of silence and he no longer had to cover my mouth when he crept into my bed. I simply lay prostrate until he finished with me, then turned on my side, curled into a fetal position, and wept silently in the darkness. My mother had become my co-wife.
“Shh…” I whispered fearfully to our maid when she pointed out my swelling belly. “Please don’t tell anyone. Mama will kill me if she finds out.”
Our maid was a practical woman with practical solutions. She went into her room and came back with a wire hanger. She straightened it out, except for the hook, and said, “I will stick this inside you, push it into your womb and pull out the baby. No one will ever know that you were pregnant.”
I feigned illness the next morning and when we were alone in the house, she made me lie down on the dining table and asked me to spread my legs. She inserted the cold wire all the way into my uterus then turned it this way and that way, pushed it farther up and pulled. I let out a piercing scream and she whispered, “Shh, stop screaming. The neighbors will hear you.”
She stuffed me with cotton wool to stem the bleeding once she was done, then she made me swallow four paracetamol tablets and gently led me to my bed. I lay there, writhing in pain, while she cleaned the pool of clotting blood off the dining table and floor.
I was only thirteen years old.
“How do you feel baby?” my mother asked when she returned home in the evening.
“My stomach hurts mama and the bleeding won’t stop,” I replied.
She smiled and patted me gently on my arm, “My baby has become a woman. We’ll go shopping for sanitary towels tomorrow.”
She took me to the hospital two days later. The bleeding hadn’t stopped, I had developed a fever and could barely walk.
“We need to take her into theater,” the doctor told my mother after examining me. “We must identify the source of the bleeding.”
I later learned that my surgery took three hours. The wire hanger had perforated my uterus and sepsis had set in. The doctor performed a hysterectomy to save my life.
My mother was seated on a chair next to my bed when I woke up after the surgery. “My poor baby,” she said when I opened my eyes, and then we both burst into tears. We wept in each other’s arms for a long time. I wept over my stolen childhood while she wept over my stolen womanhood.
She hardly left my bedside during the three days that I stayed in the hospital following my surgery. On the day I was discharged she told me, “Your aunt Catherine has offered to live with you for a while until you recover. I think it’s better this way”
“You must never speak about this to anyone, not even your aunt. Do you hear me?”
Then she pulled me into her arms and hugged me tightly, “It’s going to be alright baby. So long as no one ever knows what truly happened.”
I convalesced for two months and was homeschooled by my aunt, who fussed over me night and day. Mama’s visits became less frequent during this time and she eventually stopped answering our calls. My aunt enrolled me in a nearby school when she realized that my mother had no intention of taking me back.
Time and distance are great healers. My body was the first to heal, followed slowly by my wounded spirit. I blossomed over the next couple of years and soon there was no trace of the little girl who used to huddle under the covers and weep in the night. I locked her away in a tiny corner of my heart and refused to let her out even though she occasionally screamed to be set free.
I received a phone call from my younger sister late last night and I listened in silence while she wept uncontrollably. She finally pulled herself together and whispered haltingly into the phone, “Papa came into my room tonight and did horrible things to me. I’m scared Clarissa, I don’t know what to do.”
“Shh, baby. It’s going to be alright,” I assured her unconvincingly. “Please go back to sleep, we’ll talk in the morning.”
A long silence followed then she spoke again, hesitantly, “Clarissa…”
“Did papa do these things to you too?”
“Well, did he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Is that why you got sick and went away?”
“I’m scared Clarissa.”
“I know baby. I was scared too. Please go back to bed. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Ok. Good night Clarissa.”
I was woken up by a piercing scream early that morning. I turned on my side, curled into a fetal position, and wept silently as I listened to my aunt wail. My little sister had taken her own life. They found her in bed with blood oozing from her slit wrists. She did not offer any explanation for her suicide. She was only ten years old.
The final thought that drifted through my mind as the fire engulfed the room was that the media would get it all wrong tomorrow. The headlines will read, “Man kills wife and children then kills himself”. They will speculate on the various factors that could have driven me to commit such a heinous act. Many of them will hint at the possibility of mental illness. Social media will be less restrained and theories will be traded regarding cult involvement and child sacrifice. None will comprehend how deeply I loved my family. I will only be remembered for killing them.
Journalists will swarm the middle-class residential area where my family and I have resided for the last four years. They will find my grief-stricken neighbors standing in small groups with their arms folded across their chests or behind their backs. Most of my neighbors will be too traumatized to give coherent interviews but a few will tell the journalists about the frequent late-night fights. They will sob as they describe my three beautiful daughters – Ashley, Imani, and Pendo – all burnt beyond recognition. Little mention will be made of my wife. She never socialized with the neighbors.
If it is a slow news day, media houses will bring in leading psychiatrists for a news segment on mental health issues and I will be the focal point of their discussions. I will be famous for twenty-four hours then the country will forget about me and move on to discuss the next headline. My family and I will be reduced to statistics on murder-suicide.
Only a handful of people will probe our deaths in subsequent days. Perhaps a lone journalist will trace my roots to a small village in Siaya. When he gets there, it will take him a relatively short time to locate my late father’s homestead. After all, I will be the talk of the village. Villagers will give him directions to the home and he will leave them muttering sadly at the tragedy that had befallen their village. He will hear them murmur in sympathy about my poor mother, “a dedicated servant of the church,” and, “what a pity she has to endure this heartache”.
I am sure that he will be surprised to find my widowed mother living in a beautiful three-bedroom stone house. A retired headteacher in one of the local secondary schools, she will throw him off balance with her eloquence and good diction. He will leave her house with a full belly from the sumptuous lunch prepared by a trained cook but he will also leave with a blank notebook. She will feed him lackluster tales about my uneventful middle-class upbringing and will emphasize my average intelligence. She will hint at mental health problems but will not provide any newsworthy details. He will get into his rental car, drive back to Kisumu, and take the evening flight back to Nairobi with a defeated spirit. He will be disappointed at his inability to unearth the root cause of my horrific act.
If only he would linger in the market place, among the fishmongers and food vendors, and listen to the hushed whispers of the womenfolk. If only he would visit the local pubs in the evening and listen in on the drunken conversations among the menfolk.
He would hear the men talk fondly about my father, a kindhearted and unassuming primary school teacher whose only weakness was his excessive love for vodka. He would hear them speak about the nights my mother locked my father out of the house or poured cold water on him when he went home drunk. They would recall the beatings she frequently rained on her husband and the years of emotional and verbal abuse that he endured before he took his own life.
He would hear the women discuss my mother’s numerous affairs with male teachers and the long-standing relationship between her and the local doctor who, it was rumored, had fathered her two youngest children. He would hear about my unexplained two-year absence from the village when I was a teenager. The women would reignite the rumors that I had sunk into drug addiction and had been admitted into a rehabilitation center. They would also recount my father’s suicide and sadly describe the scene that I caused when I finally returned home to find the overgrown grave of the man I worshipped.
But these incidents were only spoken of in hushed tones among the older folk because my mother was now a reformed woman, a deaconess in the local church and, a pillar in the community.
Unfortunately, childhood wounds, if not well-tended, often fester into adulthood and manifest in myriad ways. My eldest sister was in her third marriage and her five children all had different fathers. My younger brother was a drifter who could not hold down a job or relationship for more than a year. My youngest sister joined a convent soon after completing high school and we hadn’t heard from her in years.
I was considered the luckiest of my siblings. I sobered up after my stint in rehab, went to university, and graduated with honors. I immediately got a well-paying job, married the love of my life and we had three lovely daughters in quick succession. The demons that raged within me were quelled and I was contented for the first time in my life.
Then came the rumors of infidelity marked by late nights and numerous work-related trips out of town. My demons stirred to life as I helplessly watched my wife change before my very eyes. I warned her that I would rather we all died than have my children grow up in a broken home but she paid me no heed. Our verbal exchanges became nightly rituals and soon escalated to deadly physical fights.
She came home late tonight and I instantly smelt him on her. She was slightly drunk and in a defiant mood. I calmly informed her that I would not let my children witness her drunken behavior and ordered her to go back to her lover.
She belligerently demanded that I pick out my child from the three children who were cowering at a corner in the living room.
“Show me your child, you impotent bastard,” she repeated scornfully.
The flame that had smoldered within me for decades erupted into a raging inferno.
I was jostled back to reality by loud banging on the heavy steel door, accompanied by panicked shouts from my neighbors. I slowly looked around the room and my chest tightened at the sight of my children and wife lying in pools of blood across the room. My clothes were drenched in blood as was the butcher knife in my hand.
My living room resembled a gory scene in a horror movie. I trembled in shock and revulsion and then grief quickly set in. It was a gut-wrenching grief that surpassed the one that I experienced when I returned home all those years ago to find that my father was long dead. I let out a wounded cry and sunk to the floor as tears streamed down my face.
My loud sobs subsided after what seemed like hours. I ignored my neighbors’ desperate attempts to break down the door and walked mechanically to the kitchen. I dragged the heavy gas cylinder from the kitchen to the middle of the living room then let out the gas. I went to the storeroom and returned with a jerrycan that was half-filled with kerosene. I poured the kerosene over the furniture and carpet. The pungent smell of gas and kerosene filled the room.
I carried each of my children to the middle of the room and gently laid them on the floor next to the cylinder. I knelt next to them and without hesitation, struck a match.
The raging demons within me suddenly went very quiet in deference to the fire that quickly engulfed the room.
They call her blessed and marvel at God’s enduring mercy.
“What a blessed woman, to have lived to see her children’s children. She’s so strong for a ninety-something-year-old. And as for her memory, it could easily rival those of her great-grandchildren.”
Ah, those memories…
Memories that wake her up in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep. Memories that make her sob into her pillow in the wee hours of the morning when all is still and even the earliest bird hasn’t woken. Memories that mock her daily when her grandchildren ask her excitedly, to tell them stories about her youth.
They laugh gleefully when she tells them tales about her maternal grandfather, a hardworking laborer who had been one of the construction workers in the Aswan high dam. They giggle at the tales of her mother, a ferocious woman, who was feared and loved in equal measure. Feared by men, for she feared no man. A woman who was kidnapped on her way to the lake and was held captive for weeks before her groom dared to reveal himself to her. A woman who fought any man who crossed her path and then composed songs and sang of her victories over all the men in the village. A woman who was feared and loved in equal measure. Loved because of her integrity and unwavering loyalty to those she called friends.
She tells them about her siblings and shares with them the memories of her happy childhood, growing up on the shores of Lake Victoria. But their curiosity is never satisfied, they want to hear childhood stories about their fathers, her sons, who have all gone to be with the Lord.
She talks well into the night as they sit in raptured silence, listening to her tell tales of all the people she had lost in her life: her parents, siblings, husband, friends, neighbors, and most painfully, sons who should have buried her instead of her burying them.
In the morning they recount her tales to their mothers and marvel at her memory. Their mothers tell them that their grandmother is blessed and that maybe if they follow her example and serve the Lord as diligently as she had, they too might live to see their ninetieth birthday and see their children’s children.
is the creator of the world
the father of all mankind
calling a mortal being mother
yet knowing he created her
Walking the earth as a peasant
while his wealth is matchless
Making friends with outcasts
while the angels sing his praises
is the creator of the world
the father of all mankind
taking our burdens upon himself
and dying on a cross for our sins
while his creation stands by to watch
I was only twelve years old when my father left. I was the eldest of three children and old enough to comprehend how his betrayal broke my mother’s heart. I watched her deteriorate from a proud, vibrant woman, with a commanding presence to a docile stranger. But thank God for siblings. Over time, her sisters managed to convince her that she was better off without him while her brothers simply stepped in and took over our upkeep until she got on her feet and was finally able to single-handedly fend for her family.
She once again became the regal matriarch of our family but I never forgot how my father’s betrayal brought her to her knees. I swore that no man would ever exercise that kind of power over me.
My aunts spoke in hushed tones about my father’s new family. He had married a light-skinned woman from a far off tribe who bore him two light-skinned children. He named the children after his parents and affectionately called them “mum and baba”. His new family spoke only English at home. My mother, on the other hand, was a full-figured Luo woman with a bright smile that outshone the sun and warmed the hearts of everyone she met. My siblings and I inherited her charcoal dark skin and milky white teeth. At her insistence, we spoke only Luo when we were at home. She was proud of her heritage and wore it like a medal.
I was not persuaded that my father was driven away by our dark skin and fluency in Luo even though my mother’s sisters often made these comparisons between us and his new family. However, these constant comparisons made me ponder, over the years, whether men could be that shallow.
He slipped into my heart as stealthily as a rising tide. Our love affair was pure poetry and if I were to write a poem about it I would name it “surrender”.
I could write poetry about how you pursued me like a lion pursues its prey
I could narrate tales about how I gracefully evaded your advances like a gazelle fleeing an advancing cheetah
I could sing about sweet surrender; when you finally tore down my defenses and held me in your arms
I could make a bronze statue of your arms, arms that are as hard as a rock yet tender like a mother’s touch
I could compose ballads about your deep voice, a voice that vibrates like rolling thunder yet softens like gentle waves when you speak my name
I could conduct a symphony to the beat of your heart, a heart that always beats in tune with mine
I could write a novella about still, starry nights…
Such was our love.
But what good is poetry and what good is a whimsical melody when I know that she cries in the night every time that he is with me; when I know that she says desperate prayers for God to yank me out of their lives and toss me into the embers of hell? Who is she? Oh, only his wife, the woman who wears his ring and the mother of his children.
I tried not to think about his wife. I pretended that we had not reduced her to a heartbroken observer in this epic love story in which I was the star. I tried to convince myself that our love was different, pure even. If only he had met me first. But I was haunted by memories of my mother’s tears and the endless hours that she spent on her knees after my father left. Those memories were unwelcome intruders in our love story as was my mother’s open condemnation of our affair.
“When will you put an end to this nonsense between you and that boy?” my mother invariably asked each time I called her.
“It is not nonsense mama; we are in love.”
“And how many other women has he declared his love to since he married that poor girl?”
“He says it’s different with me mama. I am not like the other women that he fooled around with.”
“Ehee, what other women? I knew it!”
“It doesn’t matter mama, it’s me he loves.”
“You are your father’s daughter through and through,” she would eventually declare in disappointment. “No daughter of mine would put another woman through the kind of pain that I experienced at your father’s hand.”
In my defense, I often tried to leave him, if only to appease my mother, but he always eased his way back into my heart and my bed. I was a willing captive in a hunter’s snare. I was trapped in a web that I helped him weave. It did not matter that he wore a shiny gold band, a testimony of his commitment to another woman or that he spoke endlessly about his young children. We were in love.
His sister called me late last night to give me a heads-up. She informed me that all hell had broken loose over the weekend. Richard’s wife had finally confronted him about our relationship. He confessed to her that he loved me and wanted to take me as his second wife. She promptly packed her bags and left with the children, but only after calling his parents. His mother went on the warpath and swore to stone me if I dared to set foot in her home. His father, who was a church deacon, forbade him outright to marry a second wife. His parents-in-law were brought in to talk to him. A family meeting was held and he was ordered to make a choice. He chose his wife and children and swore never to see me again.
All this took place during the long Easter weekend while I happily walked around with my head in the clouds, composing poetry about our love.
I was, therefore, not surprised when he broke up with me but I certainly didn’t expect him to do so over the phone.
He called me very early the next morning and after barely saying good morning blurted out, “Christine, our relationship is destroying my family. I can’t see you anymore. It’s over.”
“No,” I responded resolutely.
“You don’t get to break up with me over the phone, Richard. You come to me, look me in the eye and tell me it’s over. I won’t allow you to take the coward’s way out.”
“What difference does it make how I do it? It’s over between us.”
“I want you to look me in the eye when you say that.”
He hesitated for a moment then said, “Fine, let’s meet at Java house at noon”
I heard an indecipherable voice in the background followed by a slamming door.
“Am I on speakerphone? Are you breaking up with me on speakerphone?” I asked him incredulously. “Who’s listening in on this conversation?”
“There’s no one else here, don’t worry about it. Look, let’s just meet at noon,” he spoke hurriedly.
“No. You know what, it’s fine. It’s over. Have a good life.”
And that marked the clumsy, anticlimactic end to an epic love story.
I was in bed reading Paulo Coelho’s Adultery and marveling at the self-indulgence displayed by the main characters when my phone rang. It was my mother.
“Your father called me today,” she reported, and I sat up straight and placed the book on the nightstand.
“What did he want?”
“Oh, he just called to inform me that his daughter is getting married to a prominent businessman,” she responded dismissively. “Your father has hired a bus to ferry his relatives from the village and wants us to accompany them to the wedding when they arrive in Nairobi.”
“What did you tell him?” I asked curiously.
“I told him to go to hell,” she retorted and I quietly listened to her rant about him for the next half hour.
My father’s phone calls, which had been few and far between over the years, had become increasingly frequent of late. My mother had suffered two minor strokes this past year and the last one had left her hospitalized for close to one month. My aunts took turns at her bedside so my father did not dare set foot in the hospital but he called my siblings and me to a meeting in his home and offered to build her a house in the village. The semi-permanent structure he had built her when they got married had been ravaged by termites several years ago. We informed him that we had already bought her a large piece of land and built her a permanent house in Kisumu but he declared that she needed a house in her marital home. It did not matter to him that she had not set foot in that home in nearly twenty-five years.
My mother and her sisters laughed hysterically when we told them about his offer. She had stopped praying for him to return to us years ago. She still spent a lot of time on her knees but she now prayed for her children’s wellbeing and not over the man who had abandoned her.
His phone calls persisted despite her outright rejection of his offer and he skillfully and patiently wedged his way back into our lives. With him came his two children, who were eager to be acquainted with their older siblings, and his light-skinned wife who he still dotted on after twenty-five years of marriage. My mother grudgingly came to accept her two stepchildren but she barely tolerated her former husband and his light-skinned wife. My mother came from a long line of strong, opinionated women and could not understand how her husband could have left her for an insipid woman with delicate features. She did not appreciate the appeal of an acquiescent and mild-mannered wife.
I broke off her tirade by giving her news that I knew would calm her down. She was overjoyed at the mention of my breakup.
“Oh, that poor girl must be relieved,” were the first words out of her mouth. “I hope you have learned your lesson about running around with married men.”
I assured her that I had learned my lesson and hang up the phone after she had finished thanking God for bringing me back to my senses. I did not clarify that I had not ended the relationship but had been dumped on speakerphone.
Tonight was clearly not the right time to tell her that she was going to become a grandma.
I switched off the lights, snuggled under the warm covers, and drifted off to sleep. I was woken up a couple of hours later by my phone ringing. I stared groggily at the caller ID and set the phone back on the nightstand. It was my dad. I knew he wanted to talk about the forthcoming wedding.
I made a mental note to call my sister the following morning and assure her that we would attend her big day. My hand gently cradled the small bump in my belly as I drifted back to sleep. It may take fifteen or even twenty years but I knew that one day this child I was carrying would go looking for his or her paternal family. I knew from experience, the mixed bag of emotions that this act would stir in that family. I only hoped that my child would be met with kindness.