The letter lay untouched on his desk, its creases marked by dust. It had lay there for the past 3 weeks after Sandra’s funeral. He didn’t have the nerve to move it from where she placed it, right beside his sewing machine, where she was certain he would notice it. He juggled the idea of either reading or burning it every night before he was overcome with indecisiveness. He walked past it every morning on his way to work, watching the gradual degradation of the paper, noticing how the wind had moved its position when he wasn’t in the house. Sometimes he looked at it and he sunk into a heap in a gush of unprecedented grief that left him breathless and nauseous. Sometimes, especially on Sunday afternoons, he looked at it for hours on end wondering what Sandra might have written as a justification for her suicide. Other times, he simply ignored its existence. And whenever he was drunk, he would make a sudden move at picking it up, and then he’d stop mid-air and begrudgingly sit on his couch, his head in his hands, eventually falling into a dreamless, alcohol induced sleep.
Sandra’s funeral had been brief, just as she would have preferred. Her parents hadn’t showed up, believing that she wasn’t dead, and in fact had travelled out of the country as she often did. The flowers were lilies, white with purity, the sermon was short and light, the coffin was simple, the clouds hung low and the pain, unbearable. He watched intently as Ndinda, Sandra’s sister cried small silent sobs, covering them up with her tunic, hiding behind her huge Ray Ban sunglasses. He watched as the pastor moved his fore finger following the words on his worn-out Bible as he read with a lull that made you focus more on how he read it rather than what he read. He watched as Daisy, a neighbor’s child, swatted a fly from her face. He watched as a burly man that he didn’t recognize, seated across him, nod his head in agreement when the Pastor called Sandra a fearless believer whose place in heaven was assured. He almost chuckled.
If there was a heaven, his wife, Sandra wasn’t headed there. Of this he was certain. And neither was he. And despite their constant attendance at the Assemblies of God chapel, he did it for the sake of his father, who served as the Deacon and her, for his sake. That’s where they met — at church. It always struck him as an odd coincidence, a humorous irony; two nonbelievers meeting at a religious institution.
It was raining lightly, he remembers fondly. They were at the weekly meetup of poets, organized by the Youth Division of the church. He wasn’t a poet but she was. He initially attended it because his father needed him to be busy, and eventually he attended them because of her. She embodied all the things he wished he could be. He watched her, poem after poem, week after week. Sitting in the corner, or in between people, trying to blend in, to facilitate his unencumbered observation. He doesn’t remember most of what she wrote about but he recalls how he was enamoured by her lisp that made her accentuation oddly sensual to watch. Especially when she said ‘scintillating’ or ‘salacious’, even though she often used those words wrongly. She spoke of fire, of love, of truth, of questioning and sprinkled them with words that would make the audience blush or fume or hiss or smile.
He would often head home as soon as Sandra finished her piece, not wanting to interact with the crowd. He wanted to cherish her words, the way her lips moved, the way she stood undeterred by expectations, when the idea of her and her aura was still concentrated in his mind, unfiltered by others’ small talk and town gossip. That Wednesday was no different, despite the rain. He stood and left the church, as silently as he had entered it. He walked for a while, on the winding road towards his father’s house and then the rain decided to fall as though it was trying to prove a point. Sheltering under a tree beside the road, he waited for it to ebb. It didn’t. A few hours later, soaked to his bones, he saw her, Sandra, under her banana-patterned umbrella, walking meticulously, like a doe, towards him. He bit his cheek to stop himself from grinning.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he said, hoping that she would at least smile, or laugh at his corniness. She smiled, a gummy smile that would become a question he would always want to answer.
Sandra killed herself on a Wednesday, rightfully so, because she always said that she had an uncanny similarity with Wednesdays. The way Wednesdays were unsure of themselves. She said odd things like that. Finding correlations with otherwise unrelated things. She would speak and he would listen, peppering her thoughts with mmhs and aahs. Every word Sandra said filtered into his ears and forced a reaction from him. The pursing of lips and holding of hands; the flickering of coal black eyes to the floor, to the windows; and when they found hers, a weary heave of breath with his entire body.
When he found her, that Wednesday evening, she was slumped on the toilet seat, her head leaning against the wall, her body rigid, her right elbow slashed such that it was limping begrudgingly as if holding on onto the arm it belonged. A single drop of crimson red blood, fell silently onto a pool of coagulated blood that had formed around her feet. He hadn’t imagined that a human would have so much blood. He knew, as soon as he’d seen her, that she was dead. He knew, also, as soon as he had seen her, that she had killed herself. Her left arm was clutching at a small piece of paper. He released a breath he didn’t know he was holding, took a step toward her, raised her hand, removed the index and middle finger and retrieved the small note.
I’m sorry, you had to find me here in this disgraceful and frankly, unappealing position. It does nothing to service my height and this lighting doesn’t flatter my cheek bones. I’ve explained everything on a letter you’ll find on your desk, but now here’s what you need to do: call the police. They’ll deal with my body.
That’s when he started screaming.
He knew it was a dream; his brain would not allow him the relief of ignorance, even asleep. It did not mean it did not feel good, just added an undercurrent of awareness — just enough to keep it from being perfect. It was almost a relief. He was not sure what he would do with perfection. He sat up abruptly with the dream red and foggy around his head. It took a few minutes to shake it, to remember the disappointing reality. He had thought he was long past the point of disappointment, that he was safe from that feeling of loss in the face of reality.
The late May heat was creeping up around his cheeks and he squinted his eyes at the sudden attack of light upon his eyes. He was asleep, again, on Sandra’s grave. The grass was blotchy and the wreaths that had been lain over her grave had withered but not dried. It was three weeks after the funeral, the grave site still fresh. He came here every other day, never carrying flowers. He never talked, never cried. A couple of times the gravedigger woke him and reprimanded him but he eventually left him to his own devices. After all, it was only him who’d be called crazy and demented.
Calmly rubbing his eyes as they adjusted to the light, he chuckled lightly at the absurdity of his dreams. They were never grandiose or raucous — his dreams. They were small, pocket size alterations or repetitions of memories. Sometimes they would rouse him with a shuddering break of sweat and shivering. Sometimes he would wake up smiling and reaching for her lithe body on their bed, reality hitting him like a bus and he’d have to remind himself to breath. He’d dream of her in Malindi, her dress flowing languidly in the wind. He’d dream of her laughing, when he told her the joke about the man in his workplace who never seemed to stop blinking. He’d dream of her slashing her wrists. He’d dream that he would have found her. No matter the way he spun it, he was always running in circles, chasing his own tail, wishing to plant his feet firmly on the ground, only to be dragged away by her current, her waterfall, her silences and moans, her gazes, her closed eyes, her open mouth and her bloody wrists.
He stood up, feeling his joints crack. He needed to get a drink, a strong one, and soon. He rubbed his eyes again, for good measure, feeling the heaviness beneath them. The piercing heat signalled that it might rain later and he cussed under his breath, berating Sandra for not reminding him to carry his umbrella. Sandra is gone, he cussed again. He was forgetting too many things. He liked the slow afternoon traffic in obnoxiously loud matatus, allowing him to scroll mindlessly through Twitter, dwelling in the taste of other people’s social justice woes or sometimes reading a book and transporting himself to a place where he could maybe find peace, distancing himself from his own reality so that his wounds would close and his skin would harden and his mind would perhaps begin to move forward.
Too many people in the supermarket made him lethargic. He was fiddling with the bottles, shifting between Kibao Vodka, Kenya Cane and Blue Moon, although he knew he would eventually pick Kenya Cane. His campus tastes had never changed despite Sandra’s love for high end liquors. He liked his alcohol like he liked his workers; cheap, strong and local.
He saw him from the edge of his eyes and he instinctively flinched. Clenched his fists and reminded himself to breath in deeply. Kuria, a small amorphous man, walked briskly toward him with the confidence of recognizing the object of his approach. Kuria wasn’t carrying anything. He stilled himself.
‘Mr. Njoka, how are you? Kuria bellowed, taking his right hand and shaking it animatedly while simultaneously placing his left on his back. He sighs and shrugs his shoulders, somewhat mechanically like a badly rehearsed act. He mumbles something to the effect of similar to ‘fine’, or was it ‘good, thanks?’
‘Eish, man. Long time no see. This economy is becoming backbreaking. I just wish we’d get over these elections as soon as possible. That Supreme Court ruling was something else, totally unexpected. Did you catch the game last night? Oh, I’d go with the Glenfiddich, I know it’s quite expensive but some things even the government can’t steal from us.’
Did this man breathe? Kuria leers towards him and smiles an uncanny smile, that reminds him of a primary school teacher who always smiled while caning students. Njoka meets his eyes for too long, long enough that his expression shifts, becomes solemn, open and clear. Kuria’s eyes are a leaf caught in the wind and he licks his lips and he notices vaguely how close they are and as if to distil the tension, he continues in one breath.
‘It’s been a while. How is Sandra’s leave? She said she wanted a couple of days to get her head in the game. I’m a good boss, so I gave her 2 weeks. You know how these things are. Women need time, but us men we get things done. She was looking worn out and dare I say, a bit slimmer when she left. I know you are her husband, but man to man I -’
‘Sandra is dead.’ He blurts. The words feel strange on his lips, like he’s speaking with his mouth full. He is genuinely surprised and proud that he hasn’t fallen or crumpled into a pile of himself. It’s the first time he’d said it. He was always careful to use euphemisms; she was called home, she passed away, she lost her life, she’s in a better place, she was promoted to glory, and the occasional, she kicked the bucket. Never she is dead. It portended a finality and a brutality that he, perhaps, hadn’t fathomed or he had and didn’t know what to do with its brashness.
‘Sandra is dead.’ He repeats, mostly to himself.
Shock purples Kuria’s face and he studies the way he exercises his jaw looking for something to say. A myriad of emotions registers on his face in a short span of time. He immediately sees shock in the way his eyes bulge, then there’s the questioning in the way he holds up his face like Malcolm X, and then the momentary anger in the way his nostrils flare and he finally removes his spectacles as thin lighter lines along his temples dampened with sweat appear, perhaps to hide his sudden emotive vulnerability.
‘What? How? When? I’m so sorry, man.’ Kuria says in his breathless way, moving his head side to side and rubbing his now, surprisingly, watery eyes.
‘She killed herself. A day after her leave began.’ He says, unable to come up with any other better way to say it.
He steadies his eyes on Kuria and sees a sudden flash of understanding, maybe even realization, when he rapidly squints his eyes. His anodyne expression, subconsciously laced with heavy meaning, is noticed by both of them. Kuria opens his mouth, closes it and opens it again. He is at a loss. He shakes his head, lowered, and returns to his previous expression of shock, except it is muddied with a false demeanour. He suddenly can’t look at enough items on the shelves. He shifts his feet, almost vibrating, suddenly nervous. Kuria raises his head, smiles tautly and mumbles, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, man.’
Kuria moves to his left, as if to leave him there with his new-found knowledge. Njoka moves to barricade him. He fists his hands on his stripped shirt and makes a move as if to lift him.
‘Look at me,’ he growls. He is tense and he is struck by the shallow undercurrent of fury pulsing right beneath the surface of this place, aching to be realized. It gathered in small increments, so small he hadn’t even noticed. Much like the heat pooling under his skin and begging him to move, the fury took him by surprise. With his eyes trained on Kuria’s face, he is intent on seeing into him or through him, dissolving the man in all his particulars in order to find the answer to his not-yet verbalized question.
‘I’m so-so-rry. I’m so so sorry.’ Kuria cowers, making himself impossibly smaller. ‘It was once. Only once. I was drunk and it was late. I couldn’t control myself. I didn’t mean to hurt her. Forgive me. I’m sorry.’
He sizes him up. His leery eyes, his spidery long fingers, his formless moustache and his guilty cowering fuel an all-consuming almost visceral fury. He thinks of Sandra in her last months. Her silent sobs in the middle of the night, her half smiles, the hidden bruises she says are from matatu touts and hawkers, the automated lovemaking, the excessive showering and scrubbing, her face, always empty of affect, the veil of caution she carried around and the erratic outbursts of passion as though she was searching for something that she could only find in him. It was dazzling, this new Sandra. He didn’t know what was going on and he figured that in due time, she would tell him. He should have asked. In blinding rage, he mutters curses at Kuria who now has small froths of saliva pooling at the corners of his mouth.
He contemplates hitting him with the Kenya Cane bottle he’s holding, right here in the supermarket, or beating him to a pulp, or…he doesn’t know. He figures he should do something drastic and potent, but he doesn’t know what or how. In a resigned huff, he shoves him to the ground and storms past him. Half running half walking, even his feet are uncertain. He pays for his bottle, opens it before he’s even left the damned place, takes a swig at it and runs home.
He’s soaked. A sordid mixture of sweat and rain. He sinks into his desk chair, places his bottle beside him and skims his desk for Sandra’s letter. He releases a deep enigmatic sigh when he finds it, dusty and forlorn. Her handwriting, cursive and elegant, even in the face of death, makes him smile. A smile that tugs at his throat, and he clears it, afraid that he’ll start crying and abandon the task.
‘Sandra,’ he whispers like he is tasting the name, as if he hadn’t whispered it like a prayer a thousand times.
He tears the edge in a rush and pulls out a neatly folded paper.
Malusi Mwongeli (@MalusiMwongeli) is a writer and a graphic designer born in Nairobi but raised in many parts of Kenya. She would like to be an avid traveler but she has no funds to actualize that dream. When she’s not making lists or eating fruits, she’s probably thinking about it.
Related country: Kenya