Abu Amirah is a Mombasa-based emerging writer, a second-year student of Psychology, shortlisted for the Writivism 2016 short story prize and mentored by Yewande Omotoso during the Writivism online mentoring program 2017. Having attended the Miles Morland Foundation writing workshop in Bulago, he has just finished working on his first short story anthology to be published later. His piece “Rock Bottom” won the Kalahari review Igby prize for nonfiction in October 2017. Currently, he does the weekly column “Swahilific: Diary of a campus girl” in Mombasa’s premier lifestyle blog lifeinmombasa, while separately working on an initiative set to feature stories mainly from the East African coast under hekaya.co.ke.
They Had No Names
The rain beat down on the tarmac, turning misty against the unrelenting grey surface. It thrashed me too as if I had wronged it, trickling down my face, stinging like a thousand pins. I stuck out my tongue to taste it. It had no taste. Looking behind me, I could trace the mud right from my shoes all the way to where the slope started, falling deeply into a dumpsite, then rising again to meet the sprawling slum which we called home. I imagined the gleeful sounds of boys my age sliding in the mud, and I knew, I knew that I’d probably never slide with them again, my unassuming coevals.
Mother squinted under the umbrella she was holding with one hand, while the other held my baby sister, and my baby baby sister strung on her back, her little, fat legs sticking tortoise-like under the brown and orange kanga pulled into a tight knot below mother’s throat. Her bum sagged inside mother’s kanga like a balloon and I imagined the thunder-like sound it would make if I was to smack her. I’m certain mother would have peeled my skin off like a tomato if I dared. She was rather protective of my baby baby sister, perhaps because she was the least ugly of the three of us.
The black umbrella looking like a crippled crow wasn’t adequate to cover the four of us and even the rain managed to sneak under it to half-soak the sleeping baby. Mother kept looking on either side of the road, flagging down cars which only honked past us, headlights stealing glances at our petrified, rained-on faces before being swallowed in the rain. We were leaving God-forsaken Nairobi for a town mother called Mombasa where we would, she snickered, find my surprisingly-useless father. My, not our. I imagined we would also at some point depart for another town, then another, as we traced other such fathers for my two sisters.
Get this clearly though, we were not exactly poor. No. Mother had held a job, serving beer to laughing hyenas who kept grabbing at her as if she had ripe mangoes growing on her body. She had a boss, a perpetually chili-eyed, purple-lipped, flurry haired woman who resisted old age, valiantly fighting it off as if it was a malignant illness. She used to bark orders at mother and I disliked her for it. Mother became bitter and irritable with every passing day, till she decided that enough was enough, plus there was no way she’d suffer bringing up three ugly bastards on her own, thus our reason for embarking on this journey to hunt down those deadbeat dads one at a time.
I sneaked a look at my sister, hand hanging limply from where mother’s thin one ended. She was a bitter young girl. Bitter like mother. Her unblinking gaze concentrated on a puddle on the tarmac for so long as if she expected it to turn into a pretty little umbrella. The rain beat on her bald head furiously, bouncing off to find mother’s soaked dress. Her little pink tongue darted out now and again to lick the rain off her lips, never at any moment blinking or looking away from the tarmac. I tried to distract her by bobbing my head and she didn’t even notice. Only mother did, dropping my sister’s hand briefly to rap hard knuckles on my head, kaah. My sister slowly turned her funny-looking head my way, her lips turning upwards to curve a malicious smile. I noticed the purplish liquid mother had smeared on her head for her ring worms was trickling down her face, making her look sinister. She was an ugly looking thing, my sister, and the roundish things on her bald head did her no justice at all.
The tarmac vibrated as a monstrous truck cut its way slowly across the rain, making thunder-like noises as its many wheels ran over a bump like a worm on a maize cob. Mother pushed the two of us back simultaneously, shoving the umbrella against me as she strode towards the edge of the tarmac to wave her hands at the approaching monster. In the process, the baby woke up and started yelping at the sound of the truck which was now screeching to a halt. Mother still waved it down with one hand, the other holding and shaking the baby’s bum to put her back to sleep. But this, I realized, was no place for a baby to go back to sleep, even for one with her peculiar talent of sleeping right through anything.
The monster stopped, and I held my sister back protectively. Its headlights dim against the rain, slender twig-like things wiping its face, revealing with each wipe two heads- one, round as a pumpkin holding on to a wide steering wheel while the other, emaciated and bony with owl-like eyes, a reckless beard lining the jaw staring into the rain and my mother as if she was a vile thing that should not interrupt the monster on its journey across the rain.
Pumpkin Face honked the horn so loudly I felt it pierce my heart. Mother ducked in the rain, sloshing through it towards the driver’s side. From my position I saw the door open slightly as the wind carried mixed, indiscernible voices our way- one needle-like, punching quick, imploring words while the other absorbed the words with the sound of a mallet hitting the ground. After a few words were exchanged, Pumpkin Face locked the door, leaving mother to stand there in the rain, the baby now crying more from the cutting rain drops, turning to Bony Face, lips and hands moving quickly and Bony Face shook his head vehemently, jumping from the door of the truck after a minute. Mother went round and hiked her dress, pulling the baby to the front as she climbed onto the truck and Pumpkin Face dropped a curtain behind the seat where he and mother disappeared. Bony Face ducked in the rain, running towards us, all the while grumbling, clicking and clucking so loudly like a hen that had lost its chicks. The monster stood still.
It took quite a while for them to reappear from behind the curtain, and I had already started to imagine they never would. Later as Bony Face loaded us into the truck, I noticed how the baby had not only smeared banana all over her face but the seat as well. For once, mother was not irate; instead she just wiped the mess and stared ahead, keen to leave Nairobi and its misery behind.
I sprouted fast in this kiln-like city whose heat roasted me, turning my face brick hard. Mother. I lost mother and my sisters one scorching Friday afternoon when she decided it was time we became beggars. She wore a black abaya, covering my skull with a bowl-like cap as we headed out to stand in line with a whole lot of other homeless people, extending arms to receive kind offerings from rich Arabs coming from Friday prayers. She gave strict instructions to my sister not to go anywhere until we got back.
We never made it to the Mosque.
In our hurry to beg for what may as well have been our dinner, mother didn’t even look left as she crossed the road, and a speeding red van ripped her right away from my grip, splattering her against a concrete perimeter fence. I saw her abaya fly like a kite, limbs all over the place and her bones crush with the sound I associated with chewing groundnuts. Her body fell awkward at the foot of the fence, eyes popping wide open. The van’s crimson body absorbed her blood. For the first time I noticed that my baby baby sister had mother’s eyes.
Weeks earlier, she had dragged a towering, near-fleshless creature with a tuft of a beard sprouting from his thin chin, into the establishment we were illegally sleeping in and announced him as my father. He was a cold mathafucka this one. He stood there, crouched, the smallness of the room squashing him, sweeping the room and its meager furnishings with his darting look, wrinkling his nose at its lack of personality. His disappointed gaze finally rested on my sister’s bald head for a moment too long, summing it up by saying that she was a pretty ugly thing. As he said this, he looked at mother as if he had just commented on something as mundane as the peeling paint on the walls. That’s how I was convinced he was my father.
After mother’s lifeless body had been swallowed by curious, vulture-like onlookers, I stretched my hand as she had coached me to do once we got to the Arabs, and her soul flew into my palm. I doubled back, trying to recall the way we had gotten there, only to realize that this scorching city had burnt every trail, making pathways and streets ebb away like smoke. I panicked. Later in the evening my father picked up my scent and dragged me like a kitten by my neck from a streetlight post I was about to christen my new home. I looked into his eyes, two hollows dug deep into his skull, and discerning my question, he told me that he had no idea where they were and that it would be futile to look for them in a city which burnt every unclaimed thing lying about. Besides, he added, those two are too ugly for life. But you, he said. You are my freaking blood. As he said this, he shoved a huge piece of bread in my hand, pouring a foaming cola all over it before gulping the rest down. That was the most stupid thing I had ever seen a grown man do.
I kept sprouting like a weed in spite of the city’s heat which threatened to wither me and my memories. I became a defiant cactus, a hardened child of the streets. Children of the streets are by default hard little things that can eat worms from a stale meal gone and still live to see another day. Effortlessly, I had become that being.
My father taught me one thing and one thing only- that this world owed me nothing. The other thing that I confirmed was that mother had been right. This man was a vagabond who had no clue what he wanted in life. He was a vain creature made of wax, and I noticed that with every passing day, his life dripped away. When it finally dawned on him that he’d never turn his life around to something more meaningful, he took to teaching me lessons about life, slapping them in, kicking them hard through my bum. I would have despised him if he wasn’t my blood, gutted him even, stuffing his stomach with pieces of worn out mattress. At times, he would bring me gifts: a shoe three times my size without its mate, a half-eaten drumstick, a tie, sometimes mismatched pairs of clothes which made me look like a clown. Every time I hoped he would come holding my two sisters in his pinched hands like rabbits he had hunted down, and every time he disappointed.
Sometime later, his body was found surrounded by burning pieces of rubber, skull burnt almost skinless and hairless, leaving his now blackened teeth sticking out like he had wanted to bite someone. My friends said it was him, they had seen him snatch a purse, a shrill scream motivating him to run like the wind, dashing between traffic, crossing roads dangerously, leaving angry motorists honking before he finally ran out of steam and the angry mob had crowned him with a tire and anointed him with petrol before the city finally claimed his soul. I tried to stretch my palm, hoping that his soul would come out of its hiding place and fly into it. It was too late; the streets of Mombasa were a cruel lot, gobbling down his soul even before his son could claim it.
Just like that, I found myself motherless, sisterless and fatherless. I wasn’t homeless; the world was my home. I sighed and crossed the street to stand at this grilled-chicken place with its annoying red and yellow paint which looked like a couple who were angry at each other. I fixated my gaze on the enormous window as I tried to recall scanty memories of mother and I walking past this eatery, her ill-fitting abaya trailing behind her as I tried to pin my skull cap to my head. I saw our fleeting, wavy reflections in the tinted window. I tried to recall which way we had come so I could retrace our footsteps and probably locate my sisters. I had spent years doing this act of recollection in futility, and memories of that day seemed to fade away, leaving behind only one static reflection in the mirror and thousands of possible pathways leading to thousands of places.
This cactus kept growing. My mother’s soul was still in my hand and my father’s blood still cruised through my veins. Memories of my sisters kept haunting me and I had even forgotten their names. It’s like they were nameless, like mother had so much on her hands and mind that she forgot to give them names that would last forever. Like the men who used to grab at her in the bar had stolen the names, taking them home tucked in the inner pockets of their coats as presents to their unborn children. I had even forgotten my own name; I adopted whichever name the city deemed fit for me. I never held one name for more than a couple of days; I found names to be rather cumbersome. See, this city loved me. I was its cactus and I had learnt not only to prick at those who needed pricking but also the craft of invincibility. Invincibility could not thrive on a single name.
I learnt to read people’s body language. It wasn’t so hard. People are pretty much open books if you are keen enough to observe. I also learnt to read books without actually reading, taking in the cover image and imagining what the author had in mind and why the particular choice of image. I’d then look at the inner, back cover, at the image of the author and through their eyes I would discern the emotions that fuelled the book. I’d stare at cover images of red-lipped blondes and imagine the things they could do, their capacity to love or hurt. By watching people gesture as they spoke in languages I didn’t understand, I learnt to string together meanings.
I took to staying in one position for long periods of time studying people and their habits. I knew who was happy and who wasn’t. There was this youngish girl, thin as a reed and beautiful in an unexplainable way. Elegant, happy, lively little thing. She would appear at dusk, short skirt riding her thighs and place herself in the shadows a few meters away from a night club, and the semi- darkness would spill her out whenever the headlights of a car lit the night air, and she would swing her little glittery handbag and swing her slender hips, thin hand pressing a button on her neck which made her head slant in a way that was meant to be suggestive.
At times, a car would stop briefly only to zoom away, leaving her to fight for her balance. At other times, a door would open and she would hop in, and then walk from a different direction a few minutes later adjusting her short dress. I imagined one of my sisters doing this too, and this drew me very strongly to her tragedy.
She called me Shadow Man. I liked it.
I asked who she might be, and cocking her head to one side she said she would be whoever I wanted her to be. She loved Joleyn and Dirty Diana from songs she had heard. Later on, I called her my B and B associate- bhang and bang! The bhang I peddled seemed to have such magical powers that her legs spread instantly. We however made a pact that while we were banging, she would quit her incessant moaning which was a requirement of her trade. I rather much preferred to do it in silence, leaving my mind free to organize my thoughts as my body engaged in this carnal quest. Unlike my dead father, I was an organized young man.
One night after bhang-ing and banging, and we were staring mindlessly at the efflorescence in the concrete ceiling, hallucinating, she told me how she had slit her step-father’s throat and how she had walked out as if she had just slaughtered a chicken for Christmas. I told her that at some point I had thought she could be one of my sisters.
She asked whether that was the reason I had taken to watching her from the shadows. I nodded.
She had sneered, asking why I had imagined so. I had shrugged. She then asked me whether I had been smoking bhang during the full moon. I shrugged again. Full-moon or three-quarter moon, made no fucking difference to me. Apparently, according to her statistics, smoking bhang during a full moon was the leading cause of lunacy in third-world countries.
See, she said. I cannot be your sister. I’m way too pretty for that. Your lot, she added, is a rather unfortunate and disaster-ridden one.
Yet here we are, I said. You as a whore and I as… I trailed off, not certain what I was anymore.
Yes, she said offhandedly.
I remained quiet, thinking of something profound to say. I’d have told her to go get fucked, but that would have been silly because that’s what she did for a living. I marveled at the incredulity of a thing so smart and witty being this reckless with her body. Far as I could tell, she would have made a perfect surgeon based on the clean way she said she had slit her step-father’s throat.
But the rains will be starting soon, she said, getting up to stretch, interrupting a smile that was just about to curve my lips. And I cannot wait to pick new names from the puddles. For us, and them, she added.
I loved her way of reasoning. A new name always gave me the jolt I needed to reinvent myself.