Those in the mirror are the first to know that Bosi is back. She is not in the room yet, not even the house, but they know. The mirror clouds over in their excitement. It rattles a little bit. It hisses with the whisper of their voices [she’s here she’s back.sheshereshesbackshesbackbackbacksheshereshesback.]
Bosi is watching life-things through the kitchen door, still thinking about retreating to her world of oblivion, horrific as it was. The house is still unremarkable. Her mother is still made of knots. Her father is, as usual, dead.
It takes a few seconds, but her mother feels her long before she sees or hears her; or rather, she feels the unremarkable walls take in a big breath around her, feels the air getting thinner around her for the first time since Bosi left. When she turns around to face her daughter, she sniffs in that loud, disapproving way of hers, then turns back to the stove. She dips her spoon into the metal cup of sunflower oil on the counter and then slips it under the chapati on the karai. Her shoulders move like viscous oil. A knot tightens, making her already thin frame a fraction of an inch thinner.
“She found you then, eh?” Her voice is frowning tightly.
Bosi steps over the threshold, bending over to take off her shoes— the only allowance she will make in her life for her mother’s rules— centering her weight on the knees that have held up several lifetimes. She feels her mother’s gaze, always heavy, trying to keep her from ever standing up again. For two head-pounding seconds, it seems to be working, and she begins to think that staying in this position forever might not be so bad if only it means never having to look at her mother’s face again. But she sees the cracks in the kitchen floor and her body jerks itself back upright. The ghosts of redness have not disappeared from them, or they have been following her without her knowing all this time and have finally settled again where they belong.
“I didn’t want her to find me,” Bosi finally replies, as if her mother could care less about what she wanted. Another sniff of derision. Upstairs, the mirror chips in its top right corner, small enough that nobody will notice. They stop their frenzied movements. They need to be able to contain themselves for when she walks into the room.
Bosi, though, takes her time, starting in Nkiro’s bedroom. The walls have been repainted a bright blue, no doubt one of many tiny changes her mother made to chase her second daughter out of the house. Bosi doesn’t know whether it worked or not—she hasn’t heard from her sister in two years. The bed sits silently, pristine, as beds sit, telling her nothing.
There is a plainly framed photograph of her parents from an ambiguous day lost in other memories hanging on the living room wall, one of those distant family weddings with a lurking photographer. Their own wedding picture used to hang in that exact spot before Nya had moved into the house and turned it and everything else on its head with her words and her ghosts.
Bosi is eleven years old. Nkiro is eight. Their father has brought Nya to live with them. Their grandfather has been dead two years. Nya has been insisted on living on her own in their house just outside Limuru, but three weeks ago, she fell while down the stairs sleepwalking and broke her leg. Every day she spends in Nairobi, she swears she is going back the minute she is healed. Nobody contradicts her, least of all her children, but it took them three weeks after the hospital discharged her to recognise the early stages of senility. She is not going anywhere.
Bosi takes back the thought and corrects it. Nya had moved into the house, with her words and her ghosts, and had found everything already turned on its head for so long the cracks had sealed and the upside down mould had been taken for normal. She had noticed. The wedding photo, so beautifully framed, so typical, so full of uncertainty, was only one of the things that had shattered in the months that followed.
Bosi’s old bedroom is ugly now. The bed had been broken the night her father had been swallowed by the rest of the world, and only the mattress, now browned, is left. The ceiling is sagging. Several tiny cracks in one window have joined an older-looking one, and the smaller window is missing two panes. The curtains are gone. The very faint smell of mould only just manages to overpower the fainter smell of something unnameable. She cannot sleep here.
The house is exploding in screams and things smashed against its walls. The dead men hide under tables and in cabinets with their hands over their ears, leaving no room there for the girls, who will later be found hugging each other in the bathtub, sitting in their own piss.
The mirror is rocking back and forth gently now. They know, they know! She cannot avoid the room anymore. She will have to sleep here, in this room, if she’s staying. If! Suddenly they’re anxious [is she staying, is she, stayingsheis, she is?]; it has been too long since they had had to consider alternate possibilities in their heads.
Bosi hasn’t decided if she is staying. She doesn’t need to be here. Nya has been dead for a while, even though she only learned of this last night. She doesn’t know where Nkiro is or if she will be coming home tonight. Her mother has cleaned this house to an inch of its unremarkable life, perhaps trying to scrub away the past and the role she played in it, or maybe it just keeps herliving. Bosi can go. She has to see Nya’s room, of course, no more than stick her head in there and see if it is as she remembers, but she doesn’t have to stay.
She walks into the room and they stop rocking the mirror immediately. They aren’t sure she saw it moving. She isn’t sure she saw it moving, or if it is just the loud space expanding and expanding inside her that’s pushing against her eyeballs and her stomach and her fingertips that’s making everything seem unsteady. She leans against the doorframe. She doesn’t seem to know it yet, but her body has decided it is staying.
The room used to be her father’s study before Nya moved in. His books are still there, lining two of the walls almost to the ceiling. Their disuse keeps the feel of dust heavy in the air even though the room is clean. “Everything looks like it’s waiting for Nya to come home from one of her hospital visits,” she says out loud, imagining she is talking to Nkiro to see if she can dispel the particles of silence with the noise from inside of her. She can’t. Those in the mirror have arranged it so because it is their room now.
Walking in to place her things on Nya’s bed, she sees movement in her periphery vision. She stops, catching herself before her head jerks to see what it might be. She turns herself inwards, trying to elicit a normal reaction, but there isn’t enough space for her heart to pound (it’s slowing up) or her blood to rush (it’s squeezing itself through her veins, barely.) The goose bumps do not come. She wants desperately to be afraid, or shocked at the very least. She isn’t. She turns.
It’s just her reflection in the [still] mirror. She rolls her eyes at it.
She doesn’t see them yet, but they have been staring at her eagerly from the second she walked in. When she faces them, they see her eyes for the first time in years. They notice the set of her mouth and the slightly darkened skin on her right cheek. They have been pestering Nya since her death, trying to find out where her granddaughter is. Now that they have seen her face, there is an unspoken consensus that they do not need to know.
In April 1959, Nyareso is a young, skinny woman, newly married, new to the city and carrying books in her head.
She and Julius live in teacher’s housing at the school where he works. In her bones, she can still feel the shadow of her parents’excitement that their first born daughter was able to marry well, even though just four years earlier they had been angry with her for rudely and loudly elbowing her way into teacher’s college. She herself is more excited by the diploma she has just started putting to use at the primary school a bus ride and a short walk away.
In August 1960, Nya is exhausted. Julius is in between her legs every single night, angry at the news of her good work he hears whispered amongst teachers, angry at his delayed promotion, angry at her empty womb. At the school, where she gives as much of herself to the young, foreign girls as she can, Mr Butterworth, the headmaster, gives her more than her fair share of work because the white teachers feel their workload is too heavy. On the bus between the school and the house, she tries to remember the books she used to carry in her head, and the excitement that had once lived in her bones. The effort makes her want to cry.
In October, Mr. Butterworth’s wife leaves him for another British man, a soldier, and a week later, the two of them return to England. Mr. Butterworth spirals into near-comatose depression, so much so that he quits his job and moves to South Africa, taking with him his silly task-allocation system that has been draining the black teachers. For the first time in months, jokes make their way around the staff room—in the absence of the white teachers, of course—and the tiniest bit of relief seeps into Nya’s blood from the air around her. Unfamiliar to the feeling, she contributes to the banter in bad taste, saying she hopes Mr. Butterworth falls off Table Mountain. Her colleagues cackle. Everything on this day is funny.
A few weeks later, on the day after she finds out she is finally pregnant, Nya hears about Mr. Butterworth’s death. Alcohol poisoning, one of the teachers at the school say. Nya, of course, doesn’t care much for the news. She imagines, perhaps correctly, the shift inside her is the beginning of a new life, for both her child and herself.
But then one Sunday after church, Mr. Butterworth’s ghost floats quietly into Nya’s kitchen, where she is making lunch for a husband who is upset at her for another flimsy, recycled reason. She is tired still, which is why she does not scream. She blinks twice in quick succession, but that is the only sign of her surprise. Her new fridge magnets, varied models of lions, giraffes and rhinos, might say she was expecting it, but a woman who has been forced to learn to brace herself for Julius’ cruelty— her mother and her friends call it stress— from all directions is just always ready.
At first, Butterworth’s perpetual presence in the house makes her uncomfortable, but in the twenty years and four children that follow, Nya learns enough about the strength of her rage, and about the ways of ghosts, to wish five more men dead, and there were five more ghosts living in her house. They mind their own business, always hovering nearby, on her better days, and prop her up in her increasingly frequent bad moments in the forty-something years it takes her to finally kill her husband. The doctor’s report would cite old age, disregarding his good health and its abruptness.
Immediately after their grandfather’s sudden death, Nkiro, as casually as she can, suggests that she and her sister spend their weekends with Nya she insists their grandmother will be lonely in that big (remarkable) house.
Their mother has made it clear how opposed to the idea she is, citing everything from petrol costs to the Limuru cold. Their father sits in silence, letting his wife’s anger do the work for him. Bosi barely looks up from her book about men without hands. Nkiro, who never cries for anything, has started crying.
Their mother, though surprised, remains unmoved refusing, in that way of hers, to know why her daughter is in tears.
Their father continues to sit in silence. Of course he knows.
Bosi’s head jerks up. She sees her sister’s face and she knows. That night, she calls Nya and tells her what Nkiro wants. Shedoesn’t mention the tears.
Every Friday for almost two years after that, Nya drives her Pajero to the girls’ school, picks them up, and takes them back home on Sunday evenings. Their mother remains opposed to the plan, but only within their own house. Their father continues to sit in silence. Nobody argues with Nya if they can help it.
Bosi and Nkiro meet them on their sixth weekend there. Like Nya, they begin to learn the ways of ghosts. Nya is pleased; she leaves them to it.
Many years later, in the space called adulthood, Bosi will lie in a sprawling, comfortable bed in whatever city she is in, blindfolded or chained to it, or both, thinking of the weekends following that weekend. She will recall that she and Nkiro survived the weeks between for those weekends. She will survive the men and women taking their painful, forbidden desires out on her body within this space called adulthood because of the memory of those weekends. She will be horrified the night when Nya floats into her dreams, which she has worked so hard to keep hidden; horrified not because she is afraid of ghosts— she knows them well— but because she hadn’t known Nya was dead. She will catch the next flight home and see her mother for the first time in years, tightly, intricately knotted and making chapati for herself.
The visits stop when Nya becomes visibly more and more tired with every passing Friday. On their last Sunday, their mother smirks and mutters that they should never have gone in the first place. Their father remains seated and silent, but this time with a tiny, knowing smile. His wife sees it and pays it no mind. Bosi and Nkiro see it. Nya does not see it, of course– she would have recognised it if she had. The ghosts know—of course they do, ghosts carry everything—and it takes them less than three minutes to decide what to do.
A few days later, Nya, who has never sleepwalked a day in her life, is draped over the bottom stair, twisted in a certain kind of fixable way.
They keep her company, as always, but still they do not tell her what they know.
They spend their days inside the mirror because six ghosts and five people make for a very crowded house. They talk to her from inside that world, telling her short stories to distract her from the pain in her leg. At night, they leave in twos and threes to learn what they could about the hidden breaks in this unremarkable place.
On the second week after her discharge, the girls’ mother hears Nya muttering to herself. She gives it a few days, periodically standing at the door trying to catch words, and then when she fails, she brings her husband to listen, hoping he will have her committed somewhere, or even send her home for all she cares. He calls his brothers and sisters. They decide on senility. They decide she should stay put indefinitely. He hangs up, silent and troubled, but her room is on the other side of the house, far away from the girls’, and her ears are old anyway. He doesn’t think much will change, or he will not let it change. His wife fumes silently, the only way she can since that damn broken leg.
Inside the mirror, when they think Nya is asleep, they begin to disagree, quietly at first but there is always a way these things go. They get louder and louder so sometimes, then, Nya is not asleep even though she pretends to be.
Bosi now remembers the day Nya says she is tired of looking at walls, at her son’s dull books, at her useless leg, and asks for a change. Her son lifts her in his arms [those arms, those arms, thosearmsthosearms do you know where the arms have been?] and takes her to the sitting room, places her gently on the couch. She is an oddity there, an old story in a much newer room with even newer things. Nobody hears her daughter-in-law thinking resentfully how much this old woman doesn’t belong. That smell, she decides, is just peculiar-old-woman smell— she does not recognise years of carefully cushioned anger boiling just under the surface of leathery skin, mingling, of course— because scents never stand on their own— with carpet cleaner.
Bosi, lying on Nya’s bed, remembers her and her sister are on the floor next to the couch. Their mother is bending over a stool nearby with a mug of tepid tea she knows will make Nya annoyed with her. Bosi remembers Nya opens her mouth to complain about the absence of steam. They all know that is what she is going to say.
But instead she asks, “Why have you let him, all this time, why have you done nothing to protect them, what kind of mother are you, what kind of mother just lets her children hurt like that?”
Bosi remembers her mother’s eyes flash, first with that irritation she has reserved for Nya (even now), and then, when she turns her face so that it is level with the older woman’s, with hate. She sees the first knot in her mother’s body form, then tighten. A lip curls but Bosi cannot remember whose and there is a hissing sound. Nkiro is watching their father who, confused at first by the contorted faces, realises he had been wrong. Everything in this moment changes. Bosi learns, for one, that fear does not sound so raw as when liquid hisses then hits a carefully polished floor, bouncing and then sticking to skinny, trembling legs.
“There is nothing profound about this story, not even the memory of it,” Bosi thinks as she recalls eyes become fire and pain. Hands fly out to strangle, to claw, to shield. Feet land in a puddle, the smell rises and sticks to clothes and skin, becomes sweat becomes tears becomes blood becomes running noses becomes spittle. Unable to move, Nya is screaming at everybody, telling the girls to move, telling her son he is no different in his violence and cruelty than his father was, telling her daughter-in-law that she will carry this more than anybody else will. Even while he spits at her, tries to break her further, orders her to leave she screams. Even while the girls’ mother calls her a filthy, jealous liar, an ungrateful bitch, she screams. Even while her granddaughters scream, she screams. They throw themselves at the body that has lain on top of them and inside of them, and he throws them off as if they are irritation bugs, and she keeps screaming. Bosi hits the wall, Nkiro, the arm of another couch. The wedding photo crashes and shatters and hurts nobody at first, and then feet are bloody, too. The girls crawl to the dining table but there are already three dead men under there. They try the wall unit— another two. They go to the bathroom, clamber into the bathtub and wait.
Bosi struggles to describe even now the ordinary— she learns later that these are ordinary, human— screams becoming what they become then, but she and Nkiro know that her parents have seen the dead men for the first time. Vocal cords being ran violently along the serrated edge of a bread knife, cuss words that fall on the wet floor writhing in painful horror, madness madness silence centuries of silence.
Mr. Butterworth finds the girls, coaxes them out of the tub and follows them back into the sitting room. Their mother is on another couch, unseeing, muttering something about the mess in the house. Nya is breathing hard, her nails broken and her face bruised, her t-shirt ripped to reveal much older scars. She tells them not to worry about her, that her doctor will be in in the morning anyway. Carefully, she instructs the girls to get Dettol, cotton wool and a bakuli of warm water. Gingerly, she cleans the cuts on their feet and their faces. Nkiro teaches them a song from school and they sing, getting the words wrong. In the middle of it, their mother begins to clean up. Still, she does not see them.
Their father is gone. Two weeks later, there will be a news story about a bus that veered off ta bridge and into a river. He doesn’t say how he knows, but Mr. Butterworth will confirm, before the news does, that their father will never return. Nya will hold her granddaughters, half grateful that she hadn’t had the strength— why wouldn’t her damn husband die when she’d tried to kill him the first time?— to kill her own son, too. Somebody will arrange a shadow of a funeral.
One by one, careful so as not to scare her, they use the mirror’s frame to hoist themselves out. Bosi half watches them, unblinking, unsurprised, trying to remember all the questions she had been saving up for them. They slip through the holes she cut out, the ones whose fabric had held every last detail of her father’s hands-in-the-dark. She smiles only slightly when Nya joins them, wondering if there was an obituary. She exhales for a fraction longer than usual when Nkiro climbs out of the mirror, too. Boss wants to ask what happened to her, but that question, too, drops. There will be time for all of that later.
The door creaks, and only then does she move, turning her head. Her mother is there, watching them all, a curious expression working its way from her face and down through the knots that Bosi could swear have multiplied in the last hour. She is fascinated by this migration through a body that was never the home it was supposed to be. She tries to read the ant-like things, thinking they may be words, then catches herself— she’s better off not knowing.
Their eyes do not meet. There is just stillness. Then there is rage and relief from Bosi, and nothing, once again, from her mother. Bosi rises slightly and turns, lying down with her back to her mother, her message clear. Her mother sniffs (in that way of hers), understanding what Bosi’s return means. She leaves.
Two days later, a sleepy Bosi watches a crowd fight for microphone-time on the one o’clock news, eager to tell the reporter, in elaborate detail, how exactly the woman who jumped off the bridge and into the water did it, as if there can be many ways to hurl one’s body into space. As she nods off, Bosi makes a mental note to ask one of the others whether river ghosts exist, and if they would be the evil ghosts. Then she settles into nap-space.
A not-yet-writer, an all-time-reader and a very reluctant student. I have written previously for brainstorm.co.ke. as well as in brainstorm’s first e-book, “When Women Speak”. I blog semi-anonymously somewhere, eat as much ice-cream as I can and want few things more than to be paid to read and write fiction all day.