Father beat mother so much the only way Little Daju knows how to express love is by violence. And so on the day he decides to propose to Tina, Little Daju (who is no longer little) comes home, beats her up proper, then sits so close to her on the floor you’d think their bodies have been fused into one like two candles put together for long. Little Daju says, in a barely audible cracking voice, he is sorry and gives her the ring. She takes it, for she is the only one who understands that every beating means neither cruelty nor brutality, but a love expressed in a different, sadistic way. But that is seven months before the blue and white patrol police car pulls up to their house and the two policemen break down the door only to find her standing over him with a knife, crimson slowly dripping from the unsharpened blade.
The first policeman pounces on Tina and pushes her to the ground, her face pressed right next to Daju’s, and she can see her reflection in the large motionless eyes that are the colour of the buttons of an old raincoat; the same eyes that had made her fall in love with him in the way they glistened moist like two stones dug from under the sea. The other policeman pries her clenched fist open and takes the knife in his ungloved hand, holds it high in the air, examining it as if it is an artefact, the blood still dripping like dirty water from an almost dry tap. Outside, the sirens cut through the damp midmorning air in deafening sounds. Outside, curious onlookers block the light from coming inside.
Except, Little Daju playing in the rain singing rain, rain, go away, come again another… before being cut short by an echo – Diana’s voice calling him to come inside before he comes home. Little Daju is only seven going eight in three weeks. He doesn’t hear his mother until she is right close to him, her long dark hair pasted on her scalp and tears (or water from the rain) flow down her cheeks. It is the first time she is realizing that Little Daju is going deaf. She kneels right in front of him and with one arm on his shoulder and one pointing towards the house, she tells him, Let’s Go Inside; each word said separately and distinctly like a teacher to class one pupils.
The bolt of lightning strikes just as she slams the door behind them.
Little Daju lies in the pool of his own blood, head tilted towards the door, and his neck is a fountain spewing red onto the tiled floor. He can’t hear the radio still playing November Rain, his favourite track. He can’t hear the neighbours saying how This is such a bad way to die – because, what is a good way to die anyway? He can’t hear Tina’s voice, hoarse and stale, shouting Let me go! and the crack of the baton as it lands on the back of her neck and then she is silent.
Instead, he hears the sound of the steam as it squeezes itself through the tiny hole on the lid of the pressure cooker; the smell of beans fills the air. He hears his mother’s heavy footsteps – for a woman her size, it is merely the dragging of feet – as she come from the bathroom or the bedroom with a fresh pair of clothes. He sits there, naked and cold, staring at the black and white screen. Unblinking, he swats the fly that is buzzing over his head and it lands on the faded pink towel spread on the couch right next to him – dead.
Dead, like he is now. Killed by the one woman he loved and swore never to hurt the way his Father hurt his Mother. Killed by his own way of expressing love. A fierce yet passionate way that no human except Tina could understand. Until that morning when he had come home and found Tina standing right by the window, staring outside at the trees and the rope-and-stick swing that the neighbours kids had tied to the tallest one, staring at nothing in particular. Palms spread on the dusty window sill. Barely turning to look at him when he walks past her, into the kitchen, places the yellow polythene bag full of groceries on the greasy worktop, and stands by the door watching her watch nothing.
…you will marry a woman who looks exactly like your mother, the only words he remembers from his father. He was too young to understand what he meant.
Now dressed in his purple pyjamas, Little Daju turns from the television and watches Diana do her magic with onions, tomatoes, fresh dhanias, a pinch of salt and black pepper. He inhales the aroma together with her voice that is so bare a squeak, it feels like a razor blade being dragged in slow motion over a piece of glass when she sings (and this she does often) growing louder and louder until it is hers no more and there is a knock on the door.
She puts the beans in three bowls and balances them neatly in her arms and sets them on the living room table; they would use the dining table but she hasn’t called the fundi to repair it. In the centre, she places a jug of water near the melamine plate that has the golden brown rolls of chapati. All this, she does even before there is a third knock on the door, wipes her hands on the front of the maroon and blue checked apron and swings the door just when he has raised his calloused knuckles to knock for the third time, and looks like it always does when he is about to hit her.
A brown trail where his shoes have stepped all the way to the two-seater couch where he has collapsed, left leg raised in the air and left arm limp by his side like a piece of meat hanging from a hook in the butchery. The aroma of the fried beans is now replaced with the stench of a man who spent the better part of his day drowned in cheap alcohol and the diseased vaginas of prostitutes who would never do anything with him if only they weren’t desperate for the few pennies he earns working for the Roads and Public Works Department in the Ministry of Planning. His snoring, the sound of a faulty train dragging itself on the rails, startles Little Daju, and Diana picks him up from the large couch and takes him to the kitchen, places him on the counter and goes back to the living room to get him some food. Thirty minutes later, he is awake and Little Daju pulls the cover of his blanket over his head even though it is a hot night due to the rains in the afternoon and he is sweating.
This time, it is not his mother who lifts him but two burly men dressed in sky-blue overalls and black gumboots who load him on a stretcher, cover him with an old bedsheet and put him on the back of the ambulance. Of course, he can’t see any of this. He can’t even see one of the morgue attendants who flashes a torch in his right eye then left, shakes his head and asks What did he do to that woman to make her that mad? then spits a ball of phlegm in the nearest dustbin. He can’t tell him All I did was show that woman love best way I know. He can’t even tell him what happened that morning.
As he was standing by the door, observing Tina, he closed his eyes and remembered his mother. He hadn’t thought about her in a while…since he met Tina and decided to ask to move in with her (a strange request from a man to a woman, she had thought) in the small apartment she had rented from her savings at the salon job that gave her a decent pay. They had since moved to a bigger house as he had since found himself a job, selling second-hand computers and Chinese clone phones for an Indian who loved him because no one negotiated the price. After all Little Daju couldn’t hear them. And he had also learnt to sneak out a few computers from the new stock and sell it on the side; an elaborate plan that involved three or four employees. He wouldn’t have to do that if his mother had been with him.
He thought of his mother, Diana, and asked himself why she never came back for him. He wondered then what had happened to her. Did she not love him enough?
When he opened his eyes, he found Tina looking at him with sunken eyes that told him she had been crying. He had moved closer to her to ask her what was wrong. Instead, she had pulled away from her grip as if she had just touched the orange flames of a furnace. Surprised by this reaction, he had stood there looking like a rat that had just been cornered by a club-wielding man. He raked his mind but couldn’t find the words to ask Tina what was wrong.
And so he had talked to her in a language he knew best.
The first blow misses Diana and lands right in the middle of the table, splitting it into two and sending the melamine plates crashing on the carpet which takes on the colour of the turmeric in the soup. She moves toward the door but he grabs her by her ankles and drags her over the spilled food. She is screaming but nothing seems to come out of her wide-opened mouth. Help me! but no one seems to be hearing her – or if they are, they choose to ignore her cries. He pulls her by her hair and it feels like he is going to peel her scalp off her head. Her screams grow louder. In the bedroom, Little Daju hears the screams faintly but he remembers that the last time he had tried to stop Father from beating Mother, he had punched him right next to his temple and the ringing in his ear had grown with each passing day until now people’s voices sounded like the buzz of a swarm of bees. This time, he decides to stay away, recoils himself in a fetal position on his bed, kicks the blanket away from him and bursts into tears.
The second blow finds the space between Tina’s navel and pelvic bone and the clenched fist lodges itself there. She wanted to ask Little Daju to stop before he kills her, but when she opens her mouth, no words come out. Instead, a steady stream of blood mixed with saliva flows from her mouth to the floor. Little Daju sees this, and his raised fist falls mid-air – between his chest and stomach – as if it has broken off from his hand. Unlike his mother, Diana, she doesn’t scream. She just stands there hunched forward with her legs wide apart, hands pressing her stomach leaving every other part of her body exposed. Over the siren sound in her head, she hears him mumble an apology, She is surprised that the beating ended fast this time and the apology came too soon. Tina lets him take her in his arms, his strong arms wrapping around her like a baby in a shawl.
The screams wake Little Daju up. Not that he was asleep or anything, but then he had zoned out to block his mother’s screams. However, this time he is sure the screams are not coming from his mother. He leaps out of bed and it creaks ever so slightly it’s as if a cat or a small animal has jumped off. The screams continue, rising in a crescendo; becoming more pronounced with each sound until it sounds like he is in a badly directed, scored, produced film. He has never heard his father scream so he is sure the guttural sound coming from the living room does not belong to his father. A stranger, perhaps, masquerading as his father. Still, he is scared of going to the living room lest he meets the wrath of his father.
Daju! Daju! His mother, calling out his name. He pushes the door and finds himself in the living room standing at the spot where the beans had spilled. The stew is still warm against his feet but it is no longer the colour of turmeric. His mother stands away and calls his name even though she can clearly see that he is right there. That is when he sees it. Right next to his big toe, a small round with slime and dots of blood all around it. His eyes trail the drops of blood and he sees where the sound is coming from. With the trepidation of a chameleon perched on a twig, he walks towards the window and he cannot hear his mother telling him: Daju, don’t go there! and he just walks until he is standing at the feet of the bloodied drapes. Little Daju reaches out and is about to part them when Father leaps from behind the thick curtains, and his weight is all over Little Daju. The sound of Little Daju’s tiny bones crushing under Father’s weight. Diana is screaming; he can hear her now. He just stares into the man’s face and sees through the hole where his eye has always been. Instead, rugged pieces of flesh jut out and a strange clear liquid drops on his pyjamas. The weight of the table comes crashing on his back and then his mother’s voice telling him, Let’s go! but he cannot leave just yet.
The next time Diana sees Little Daju, he is lying on the cold cement slab of the City Mortuary.
Tina leaves him standing there and rushes to the bathroom. She shuts the door behind her and he only hears her scream inside there. He rushes to the door and asks, Tina, are you okay? but there is no sound coming from the bathroom. He thinks maybe he should break down the wooden door, but just when he has moved three steps back and taken a deep breath and is about to subject the door to his weight, she shouts, I am okay! and he stands there wondering what to do with the strength now but he is glad that she shouted she is okay because if she hadn’t shouted, he wouldn’t have heard her.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The bloodstains on her pants tells her that she has lost the baby. She bites her lower lip and flinches when tears stream down her face and get into the open cuts on her cheeks. Were it not for the numbness she already feels inside her, she would scream her lungs out. Instead, she pours water on her face, presses a towel against it and presses the towel between her legs until she is certain there is no more blood coming out.
The woman who walks out of that bathroom and brushes past Little Daju is not Tina.
When Little Daju opens his eyes, he finds that the boulder weight of his father is no longer limp on top of him. It is morning and he is lying on the couch, covered with his mother’s old wrapper. His father still lies on the carpet floor. His mother is nowhere to be seen. Even after the neighbours have come and taken his father to the hospital, his mother still doesn’t come back home. In the days to follow, he spends his days sitting on the steps waiting for his mother to come back. He eats from the neighbours houses and doesn’t go to school. Everyone who passes in front of their house looks at him with sunken eyes that can only mean they pity him. He doesn’t seem to care or notice. He just sits there and waits. At night, he locks the door like he has seen his mother do and goes to his room to sleep. He doesn’t talk to anyone. The dim singing of the birds wake him up and it is a cycle that is only interrupted two weeks later when a woman he has never seen before comes and tells him that she is his grandmother, and she has come to take him away.
It is not his grandmother.
The woman with salt and pepper hair peeking out from beneath her dirty head wrap takes him to the orphanage she runs alongside thirteen other women from the Pentecostal church. He is thrown in a hall full of kids who share the beds that are lined up against the wall on both sides.
Every day: he wakes up to the sound of the younger children wailing for their mothers; the long queue for the cold porridge with dead mosquitos and weevils served by the mean lady with only one hand; the githeri that has more stones in it than the maize and beans combined for lunch; and the pottage of sukuma wiki boiled with beans and potatoes and then pounded into something similar to a heap of cow dung when served on the plate by the same lady who serves breakfast. He doesn’t complain. Here, at least, he gets to play with the other kids and the lady he now knows is not his grandmother teaches them songs, rhymes and poems:
Jesus loves me this I know for…
The days seem to fold into nights faster and the nights themselves are shorter. Soon, he is part of the orphanage like the beds, the lady without the hand and the badly done paint job that has started peeling off the walls. He has forgotten what it feels like growing up with Mother and Father. He has forgotten.
Grandmother comes back one day with a girl about his age and says she is their new cousin. Everyone giggles and their missing front teeth is the entrance to a home without a gate. Everyone goes to shake her hand, except Little Daju who has now been at the orphanage for three years. He is lying on his bed with his feet suspended in the air, tangling and untangling with the mosquito net. Grandmother knows to leave him alone. His ears only choose what to hear and when to hear it. It gets worse when, like now, it is raining.
Little Daju first sees her on the queue for supper. She is holding her plate close to her chest with her chin lowered until her eyes are fixed to the ground. Little Daju moves closer. He has never been prepared for whatever he feels in the pit of his stomach when she looks up into his eyes and he sees himself in hers; a spitting image of his father. Only his eyes belong to his mother. And that’s what she sees. Eyes liquid like jelly and glisten like polished glass. Eyes that reach out and fold you into a hug and you are – home.
He doesn’t hear when she tells him her name.
Tina who walks out of the bathroom with eyes that are the banks of a river no longer able to hold the roaring waters. Tina who edges past him still standing at the bathroom door. Tina who goes into the kitchen, opens the top drawer and picks out the knife. Tina who mutters, I’m sorry but I can’t take this anymore, to her reflection on the shiny blade. Tina who takes three-quick-strides into the living room and finds he has now moved to the living room, staring at their photo, taken at the fountain in Uhuru Park on the same day they sneaked out of the orphanage; never to go back (He was twenty, she was nineteen). Tina who waits until he turns before plunging the knife into his jugular. Tina who stares into his eyes – eyes liquid like – as he struggles to pull out the knife and blood sputters like water from a burst pipe. Tina who watches him,
Tina who, now clad in a faded blue-and-white prison uniform, sits across the table from a woman she has never seen before. Could this be the mother who abandoned her when she was just four years old? The woman looks nothing like her so she rules out that possibility. She watches as the woman fiddles with the ring on her finger. Silence sits between them, watching, gazing like a god that watches his people day and night but does nothing to help when they press their dusty palms together and pray to him. She waits, for what this strange woman has to say.
Does she know the prison only gives fifteen minutes with the visitors?
This is the first visitor she has received. A strange woman, slouched over the table, twisting her ring in her middle – not ring – finger. Tina’s eyes dart from the woman to the unusually large female guard who watches them as a hawk, then back to the strange woman. She wants to say something but her throat is dry and scaly and she is, in this moment, scared of who this woman might be. Or maybe this is not her visitor at all.
She gets up to leave.
The woman doesn’t lift her head.
Ma’am. I think I need to get back to –
I know why you did it –
The woman’s voice is fragile and sounds so distant like she is speaking from beneath the ocean and the waves are knocking the syllables toward a faraway island. She remains standing, towering over the woman, watching the balding patch of her head. The guard moves closer.
People like my son. They think they have the right. To do with us as they – she lowers herself on the metal seat – please. What they don’t know is that people like you and I are out here, ready to protect our bodies from them. His father, I loved him, and what did he do in return? He turned the home we had built into a boxing ring; beat me like I was a demon that needed to be exorcised. I had to end it. It haunted me, the two weeks I was away from my son, but when I came back for him he was gone. Trust me, I came back. I asked the neighbours where he was but no one told me a thing. That’s when the police showed up and took me away. Twenty years at Lang’ata Women’s Prison, the Magistrate said. He was lenient. And when I got out, my son was…dead.
Could this be? Tina asks herself, moving closer to the woman. What does the woman expect her to do with this information? Absolve her? Forgive her? Understand –
My Little Daju. I loved him. I know you loved him too. I felt it when you walked in. In a way only a mother can feel when someone becomes a substitute for the mother’s absence in a child’s life. He was my son. But someone had to put an end to him. Someone. Had. To.
Diana lifts her head and stares into Tina’s face. Then Tina sees them.
Eyes liquid like –
Troy Onyango (@TroyOnyango ) is a Kenyan writer and lawyer. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals and magazines including Ebedi Review, Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora and Transition Issue 121, for which his short story ‘The Transfiguration’ was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ won the fiction prize for the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize. His nonfiction piece, “This Is How It Ends,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Nonfiction. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. He is a Founding Editor of Enkare Review and the Fiction Editor of the East Africa issue of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. He has finished a novel and is working on a short story collection.
Related country: Kenya