An Ex-mas Feast
Now that my eldest sister, Maisha, was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore. She had never forgiven our parents for not being rich enough to send her to school. She had been behaving like a cat that was going feral: she came home less and less frequently, staying only to change her clothes and give me some money to pass on to our parents. When home, she avoided them as best she could, as if their presence reminded her of too many things in our lives that needed money. Though she would snap at Baba occasionally, she never said anything to Mama. Sometimes Mama went out of her way to provoke her. "Malaya! Whore! You don't even have breasts yet!" she'd say. Maisha would ignore her.
Maisha shared her thoughts with Naema, our ten-year-old sister, more than she did with the rest of us combined, mostly talking about the dos and don'ts of a street girl. Maisha let Naema try on her high heels, showed her how to doll up her face, how to use toothpaste and a brush. She told her to run away from any man who beat her, no matter how much money he offered her, and that she would treat Naema like Mama if she grew up to have too many children. She told Naema that it was better to starve to death than go out with any man without a condom.
When she was at work, though, she ignored Naema, perhaps because Naema reminded her of home or because she didn't want Naema to see that her big sister wasn't as cool and chic as she made herself out to be. She tolerated me more outside than inside. I could chat her up on the pavement no matter what rags I was wearing. An eight-year-old boy wouldn't get in the way when she was waiting for a customer. We knew how to pretend we were strangers --- just a street kid and a prostitute talking.
Yet our machokosh family was lucky. Unlike most, our street family had stayed together --- at least until that Ex-mas season.
The sun had gone down on Ex-mas eve ning. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls. The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop's security lights. A board, which served as our door, lay by the shop wall.
A clap of thunder woke Mama. She got up sluggishly, pulling her hands away from Maisha's trunk, which she had held on to while she slept. It was navy blue, with brass linings and rollers, and it took up a good part of our living space. Panicking, Mama groped her way from wall to wall, frisking my two-year-old twin brother and sister, Otieno and Atieno, and Baba; all three were sleeping, tangled together like puppies. She was looking for Baby. Mama's white T-shirt, which she had been given three months back, when she delivered Baby, had a pair of milk stains on the front. Then she must have remembered that he was with Maisha and Naema. She relaxed and stretched in a yawn, hitting a rafter of cork. One of the stones that weighted our roof fell down outside.
Now Mama put her hands under her shuka and retied the strings of the money purse around her waist; sleep and alcohol had swung it out of place. She dug through our family carton, scooping out clothes, shoes, and my new school uniform, wrapped in useless documents that Baba had picked from people's pockets. Mama dug on, and the contents of the carton piled up on Baba and the twins. Then she unearthed a tin of New Suntan shoe glue. The glue was our Ex-mas gift from the children of a machokosh that lived nearby.
Mama smiled at the glue and winked at me, pushing her tongue through the holes left by her missing teeth. She snapped the tin's top expertly, and the shack swelled with the smell of a shoemaker's stall. I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic "feeding bottle." It glowed warm and yellow in the dull light. Though she still appeared drunk from last night's party, her hands were so steady that her large tinsel Ex-mas bangles, a gift from a church Ex-mas party, did not even sway. When she had poured enough, she cut the flow of the glue by tilting the tin up. The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle. She covered the plastic with her palm, to retain the glue's power. Sniffing it would kill my hunger in case Maisha did not return with an Ex-mas feast for us.
Mama turned to Baba, shoving his body with her foot. "Wake up, you never work for days!" Baba turned and groaned. His feet were poking outside the shack, under the waterproof wall. His toes had broken free of his wet tennis shoes. Mama shoved him again, and he began to wriggle his legs as if he were walking in his sleep.
Our dog growled outside. Mama snapped her fingers, and the dog came in, her ripe pregnancy swaying like heavy wash in the wind. For a month and a half, Mama, who was good at spotting dog pregnancies, had baited her with tenderness and food until she became ours; Mama hoped to sell the puppies to raise money for my textbooks. Now the dog licked Atieno's face. Mama probed the dog's stomach with crooked fingers, like a native midwife. "Oh, Simba, childbirth is chasing you," she whispered into her ears. "Like school is chasing my son." She pushed the dog outside. Simba lay down, covering Baba's feet with her warmth. Occasionally, she barked to keep the other dogs from tampering with our mobile kitchen, which was leaning against the wall of the store.
"Jigana, did you do well last night with Baby?" Mama asked me suddenly.
"I made a bit," I assured her, and passed her a handful of coins and notes. She pushed the money under her shuka; the zip of the purse released two crisp farts.
Though people were more generous to beggars at Ex-mas, our real bait was Baby. We took turns pushing him in the faces of passersby.
"Aii! Son, you never see Ex-mas like this year." Her face widened in a grin. "We shall pay school fees next year. No more randameandering around. No more chomaring your brain with glue, boy. You going back to school! Did the rain beat you and Baby?"
"Rain caught me here," I said.
"And Baby? Who is carrying him?"
"Naema," I said.
"And Maisha? Where is she to do her time with the child?"
"Mama, she is very angry."
"That gal is beat-beating my head. Three months now she is not greeting me. What insects are eating her brain?" Sometimes Mama's words came out like a yawn because the holes between her teeth were wide. "Eh, now that she shakes-shakes her body to moneymen, she thinks she has passed me? Tell me, why did she refuse to stay with Baby?"
"She says it's child abuse."
"Child abuse? Is she now NGO worker? She likes being a prostitute better than begging with Baby?"
"Me, I don't know. She just went with the ma-men tourists. Today, real white people, musungu. With monkey."
Mama spat through the doorway. "Puu, those ones are useless. I know them. They don't ever pay the Ex-mas rate --- and then they even let their ma-monkey fuck her. Jigana, talk with that gal. Or don't you want to complete school? She can't just give you uniform only."
I nodded. I had already tried on the uniform eight times in two days, anxious to resume school. The green-and-white-checked shirt and olive-green shorts had become wrinkled. Now I reached into the carton and stroked a piece of the uniform that stuck out of the jumble.
"Why are you messing with this beautiful uniform?" Mama said. "Patience, boy. School is just around the corner." She dug to the bottom of the carton and buried the package. "Maisha likes your face," she whispered. "Please, Jigana, tell her you need more --- shoes, PTA fee, prep fee. We must to save all Ex-mas rate to educate you, first son. Tell her she must stop buying those fuunny fuunny designer clothes, those clothes smelling of dead white people, and give us the money."
As she said this, she started to pound angrily on the trunk. The trunk was a big obstruction. It was the only piece of furniture we had with a solid and definite shape. Maisha had brought it home a year ago and always ordered us to leave the shack before she would open it. None of us knew what its secret contents were, except for a lingering perfume. It held for us both suspense and consolation, and these feelings grew each time Maisha came back with new things. Sometimes, when Maisha did not come back for a long time, our anxiety turned the trunk into an assurance of her return.
"Malaya! Prostitute! She doesn't come and I break the box tonight," Mama hissed, spitting on the combination lock and shaking the trunk until we could hear its contents knocking about. She always took her anger out on the trunk in Maisha's absence. I reached out to grab her hands.
"You pimp!" she growled. "You support the malaya."
"It's not her fault. It's musungu tourists."
"You better begin school before she runs away."
"I must to report you to her."
"I must to bury you and your motormouth in this box."
We struggled. Her long nails slashed my forehead, and blood trickled down. But she was still shaking the trunk. Turning around, I charged at her and bit her right thigh. I could not draw blood because I had lost my front milk teeth. She let go and reeled into the bodies of our sleeping family. Atieno let out one short, eerie scream, as if in a nightmare, then went back to sleep. Baba groaned and said he did not like his family members fighting during Ex-mas. "You bite my wife because of that whore?" he groaned. "The cane will discipline you in the morning. I must to personally ask your headmaster to get a big cane for you."
A welt had fruited up on Mama's thigh. She rolled up her dress and started massaging it, her lips moving in silent curses. Then, to punish me, she took the kabire she had poured for me and applied it to the swelling. She pushed the mouth of the bottle against it, expecting the fumes to ease the hurt.
When Mama had finished nursing herself, she returned the bottle to me. Since it was still potent kabire, I did not sniff it straight but put my lips around the mouth of the bottle and smoked slowly, as if it were an oversized joint of bhang, Indian hemp. First it felt as if I had no saliva in my mouth, and then the fumes began to numb my tongue. The heat climbed steadily into my throat, tickling my nostrils like an aborted sneeze. I cooled off a bit and blew away the vapor. Then I sucked at it again and swallowed. My eyes watered, my head began to spin, and I dropped the bottle.
When I looked up, Mama had poured some kabire for herself and was sniffing it. She and Baba hardly ever took kabire. "Kabire is for children only," Baba's late father used to admonish them whenever he caught them eyeing our glue. This Ex-mas we were not too desperate for food. In addition to the money that begging with Baby had brought us, Baba had managed to steal some wrapped gifts from a party given for machokosh families by an NGO whose organizers were so stingy that they served fruit juice like shots of hard liquor. He had dashed to another charity party and traded in the useless gifts --- plastic cutlery, picture frames, paperweights, insecticide --- for three cups of rice and zebra intestines, which a tourist hotel had donated. We'd had these for dinner on Ex-mas Eve.
"Happee, happee Ex-mas, tarling!" Mama toasted me after a while, rubbing my head.
"You too, Mama."
"Now, where are these daughters? Don't they want to do Exmas prayer?" She sniffed the bottle until her eyes receded, her face pinched like the face of a mad cow. "And the govament banned this sweet thing. Say thanks to the neighbors, boy. Where did they find this hunger killer?" Sometimes she released her lips from the bottle with a smacking sound. As the night thickened, her face began to swell, and she kept pouting and biting her lips to check the numbness. They turned red --- they looked like Maisha's when she had on lipstick --- and puffed up.
"Mama? So, what can we give the neighbors for Ex-mas?" I asked, remembering that we had not bought anything for our friends.
My question jerked her back. "Petrol… we will buy them a half liter of petrol," she said, and belched. Her breath smelled of carbide, then of sour wine. When she looked up again, our eyes met, and I lowered mine in embarrassment. In our machokosh culture, petrol was not as valuable as glue. Any self-respecting street kid should always have his own stock of kabire. "OK, son, next year… we get better things. I don't want police business this year --- so don't start having ideas."
We heard two drunks stumbling toward our home. Mama hid the bottle. They stood outside announcing that they had come to wish us a merry Ex-mas. "My husband is not here!" Mama lied. I recognized the voices. It was Bwana Marcos Wako and his wife, Cecilia. Baba had owed them money for four years. They came whenever they smelled money, then Baba had to take off for a few days. When Baby was born, we pawned three-quarters of his clothing to defray the debts. A week before Ex-mas, the couple had raided us, confiscating Baba's work clothes in the name of debt servicing.
I quickly covered the trunk with rags and reached into my pocket, tightening my grip around the rusty penknife I carried about.
Mama and I stood by the door. Bwana Wako wore his trousers belted across his forehead; the legs, flailing behind him, were tied in knots and stuffed with ugali flour, which he must have gotten from a street party. Cecilia wore only her jacket and her rain boots.
"Ah, Mama Jigana-ni Ex-mas!" the husband said. "Forget the money. Happee Ex- mas!"
"We hear Jigana is going to school," the wife said.
"Who told you?" Mama said warily. "Me, I don't like rumors."
They turned to me. "Happee to resume school, boy?"
"Me am not going to school," I lied, to spare my tuition money.
"Kai, like mama like son!" the wife said. "You must to know you are the hope of your family."
"Mama Jigana, listen," the man said. "Maisha came to us last week. Good, responsible gal. She begged us to let bygone be bygone so Jigana can go to school. We say forget the money --- our Ex-mas gift to your family."
"You must to go far with education, Jigana," the wife said, handing me a new pen and pencil. "Mpaka university!"
Mama laughed, jumping into the flooded alley. She hugged them and allowed them to come closer to our shack. They staggered to our door, swaying like masqueraders on stilts.
"Asante sana!" I thanked them. I uncorked the pen and wrote all over my palms and smelled the tart scent of the Hero HB pencil. Mama wedged herself between them and the shack to ensure that they did not pull it down. Baba whispered to us from inside, ready to slip away, "Ha, they told me the same thing last year. You watch and see, tomorrow they come looking for me. Make them sign paper this time." Mama quickly got them some paper and they signed, using my back as a table. Then they staggered away, the stuffed trousers bouncing along behind them.
Mama began to sing Maisha's praises and promised never to pound on her trunk again. Recently, Maisha had taken the twins to the barber, and Baby to Kenyatta National Hospital for a checkup. Now she had gotten our debt canceled. I felt like running out to search for her in the streets. I wanted to hug her and laugh until the moon dissolved. I wanted to buy her Coke and chapati, for sometimes she forgot to eat. But when Mama saw me combing my hair, she said nobody was allowed to leave until we had finished saying the Ex-mas prayer.
I hung out with Maisha some nights on the street, and we talked about fine cars and lovely Nairobi suburbs. We'd imagine what it would be like to visit the Masai Mara Game Reserve or to eat roasted ostrich or crocodile at the Carnivore, like tourists.
"You beautiful!" I had told Maisha one night on Koinange Street, months before that fateful Ex-mas.
"Ah, no, me am not." She laughed, straightening her jean miniskirt. "Stop lying."
"See your face?"
"Kai, who sent you?"
"And you bounce like models."
"Yah, yah, yah. Not tall. Nose? Too short and big. No lean face or full lips. No firsthand designer clothes. Not daring or beautiful like Naema. Perfume and mascara are not everything."
"Haki, you? Beautiful woman," I said, snapping my fingers. "You will be tall tomorrow."
"You are asking me out?" she said in jest, and struck a pose. She made faces as if she were playing with the twins and said, "Be a man, do it the right way."
I shrugged and laughed.
"Me, I have no shilling, big gal."
"I will discount you, guy."
"Oh, come on," she said, and pulled me into a hug.
Giggling, we began walking, our strides softened by laughter. Everything became funny. We couldn't stop laughing at ourselves, at the people around us. When my sides began to ache and I stopped, she tickled my ribs.
We laughed at the gangs of street kids massed together in sound sleep. Some gangs slept in graded symmetry. Others slept freestyle. Some had a huge tarp above their piles to protect them from the elements. Others had nothing. We laughed at a group of city taxi drivers huddled together, warming themselves with cups of chai and fiery political banter while waiting for the Akamba buses to arrive with passengers from Tanzania and Uganda. Occasionally we'd see the anxious faces of these visitors in the old taxis, bracing for what would be the most dangerous twenty minutes of their twelve-hour journeys, fearful of being robbed whenever the taxis slowed down.
We were not afraid of the city at night. It was our playground. At times like this, it was as if Maisha had forgotten her job, and all she wanted to do was laugh and playact.
"You? Nice guy," Maisha said.
I pulled at her handbag.
"You will be a big man tomorrow…"
She dashed past me suddenly to wave down a chauffeured Volvo. It stopped right in front of her, the window rolling down. A man in the backseat inspected her and shook his bald head. He beckoned a taller girl from the cluster jostling behind her, trying to fit their faces in the window. Maisha ran to a silver Mercedes-Benz wagon, but the own er picked a shorter girl.
"Someday, I must to find a real job," Maisha said, sighing, when she came back.
"What job, gal?"
"I want to try full-time."
She shrugged. "Mombasa? Dar?"
I shook my head. "Bad news, big gal. How long?"
"I don't know. Ni maisha yangu, guy, it's my life. I'm thinking, full time will allow me to pay your fees and also save for myself. I will send money through the church for you. I'll quit the brothel when I save a bit. I don't want to stand on the road forever. Me myself must to go to school one day…"
The words died in her throat. She pursed her lips, folded her hands across her chest, and rocked from side to side. She did not rush to any more cars.
"We won't see you again?" I said. "No, thanks. If you enter brothel, me I won't go to school."
"Then I get to keep my money, ha-ha. Without you, they won't see my shilling in that house. Never." She saw my face, stopped suddenly, then burst into giggles. "I was kidding you, guy, about the brothel. Just kidding, OK?"
She tickled me, pulling me toward Moi Avenue. I held her hand tightly. Prostitutes fluttered about under streetlights, dressed like winged termites.
"Maisha, our parents --- "
She turned sharply, her fists balled.
"Shut up! You shame me, you rat. Leave me alone. Me am not your mate. You can't afford me!"
Other girls turned and stared at us, giggling. Maisha strode away. It had been a mistake to mention our parents in front of the other girls, to let them know that we were related. And I shouldn't have called her by her real name. I cried all the way home because I had hurt her. She ignored me for weeks.
After Mama stopped celebrating the end of our debt, she fished out two little waterproof Uchumi Supermarket bags from the carton and smoothed them out as if they were rumpled socks. She put them over her canvas shoes, tying the handles around her ankles in little bows. Then she walked out into the flood, her winged galoshes scooping the water like a duck's feet. She started to untie our bag of utensils and food, which was leaning against the shop, her eyes searching for a dry spot to set up the stove, to warm some food for the twins. But the rain was coming down too heavily now, and after a while she gave up.
"Jigana, so did you see those Maisha's ma-men?" she asked.
"There were three white men, plus driver. Tall, old men in knickers and tennis shoes. I shook hands with them. Beautifulbeautiful motorcar. . . . I even pinched that monkey."
"Motorcar? They had a motorcar? Imachine a motorcar to pick up my daughter." She stretched forward and held my arms, smiling. "You mean my daughter is big like that?"
Otieno woke up with a start. He stood groggily on the cushions, then he climbed over Mama's legs, levered himself over me with his hand on my head, and landed in the flood outside the shack in a crouch. He began to lower thin spools of shit into the water, whiffs of heat unwrapping into the night, the cheeks of his buttocks rouged by the cold.
When Otieno returned to the shack, he sat on Mama's legs and brought out her breast and sucked noisily. With one hand, he grabbed a toy Maisha had bought for him, rattling its maracas on Mama's bony face. She was still looking ragged and underweight, even though she'd stayed in the hospital to have her diet monitored after Baby graduated from the incubator.
Mama took out our family Bible, which we had inherited from Baba's father, to begin our Ex-mas worship. The front cover had peeled off, leaving a dirty page full of our relatives' names, dead and living. She read them out. Baba's late father had insisted that all the names of our family be included, in recognition of the instability of street life. She began with her father, who had been killed by cattle rustlers, before she ran away to Nairobi and started living with Baba. She called out Baba's mother, who came to Nairobi when her village was razed because some politicians wanted to redraw tribal boundaries. One day she disappeared forever into the city with her walking stick. Mama invoked the names of our cousins Jackie and Solo, who settled in another village and wrote to us through our church, asking our parents to send them school fees. I looked forward to telling them about the lit parks and the beautiful cars of Nairobi as soon as my teachers taught me how to write letters. She called out her brother, Uncle Peter, who had shown me how to shower in the city fountains without being whipped by the officials. He was shot by the police in a case of mistaken identity; the mortuary gave his corpse to a medical school because we could not pay the bill. She called Baba's second cousin Mercy, the only secondary school graduate among our folks. She had not written to us since she fell in love with a Honolulu tourist and eloped with him. Mama called Baba's sister, Auntie Mama, who, until she died two years ago of a heart attack, had told us stories and taught us songs about our ancestral lands every eve ning, in a sweet, nostalgic voice.
The sky rumbled.
"Bwana, I hope Naema put clothes on Baby before she left," Mama said to me, the middle of her sentence wobbling because Otieno had bitten her.
"She put Baby in waterproof paper bags. Then sweater."
Otieno, having satisfied himself, woke up Atieno, who took over the other breast, for they had divided things up evenly between them. Atieno sucked until she slept again, and Mama placed her gently near Otieno and began to shake Baba until he opened one eye. His weak voice vibrated because his face was jammed into the wall: "Food."
"No food, tarling," Mama told him. "We must to finish to call the names of our people."
"You'll be calling my name if I don't eat."
"Here is food --- New Suntan shoe kabire." She reached out and collected the plastic bottle from me. "It can kill your stomach till next week."
"All the children are here?"
"Baby and Naema still out. Last shift… and Maisha."
"Ah, there is hope. Maisha will bring Ex-mas feast for us."
"Ex-mas is school fees, remember?"
Mama groped inside the carton again. She unearthed a dirty candle, pocked by grains of sand. She lit the candle and cemented it to the trunk with its wax. Taking the Bible, she began to read a psalm in Kiswahili, thanking God for the gift of Baby and the twins after two miscarriages. She praised God for blessing Maisha with white clients at Ex-mas. Then she prayed for Fuunny Eyes, the name we had given to the young Japanese volunteer who unfailingly dropped shillings in our begging plate. She wore Masai tire sandals and ekarawa necklaces that held her neck like a noose, and never replied to our greetings or let her eyes meet ours. Mama prayed for our former landlord in the Kibera slums, who evicted us but hadn't seized anything when we could not pay the rent. Now she asked God to bless Simba with many puppies. "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school!" she concluded.
"Have mercy on us," I said.
"Holy Mary, Mama Ex-mas…"
"Pray for us."
It was drizzling again when Naema returned with Baby. He was asleep. Naema's jeans, mutumba loafers, and braided hair dribbled water, her big eyes red from crying. Usually she sauntered in singing a Brenda Fassie song, but to night she plodded in deflated.
She handed the money over to Mama, who quickly banked it in her purse. She also gave Mama a packet of pasteurized milk. It was half full, and Naema explained that she'd had to buy it to keep Baby from crying. Mama nodded. The milk pack was soggy and looked as if it would disintegrate. Mama took it carefully in her hands, like one receiving a diploma. When Naema brought out a half-eaten turkey drumstick, Mama grabbed her ears, thinking that she had bought it with the money she'd earned begging. Naema quickly explained that her new boyfriend had given it to her. This boy was a big shot in the street gang that controlled our area, a dreaded figure. Maisha and I detested him, but he loved Naema like his own tongue.
Now Naema wriggled and fitted her lithe frame into the tangle on the floor and began to weep silently. Mama pulled the blanket from the others and covered the girl's feet, which had become wrinkled in the rain.
"Maisha is moving out tomorrow," Naema said. "Full time."
Mama's face froze. No matter how rootless and cheap street life might be, you could still be broken by departures. I went outside and lay on the row of empty paint containers we had lined up along the shop's wall, hiding my face in the crook of my arm.
Guilt began to build in my gut. Maybe if I had joined a street gang, Maisha would not have wanted to leave. I wouldn't have needed money for school fees, and perhaps there would have been peace between Maisha and my parents. But my anger was directed at the musungu men, for they were the visible faces of my sister's temptation. I wished I were as powerful as Naema's boyfriend or that I could recruit him. We could burn their Jaguar. We could tie them up and give them the beating of their lives and take away all their papers. We could strip those musungu naked, as I had seen Naema's friend do to someone who had hurt a member of his gang. Or we could at least kill and eat that monkey or just cut off his mboro so he could never fuck anybody's sister again. I removed my knife from my pocket and examined the blade carefully. The fact that it was very blunt and had dents did not worry me. I knew that if I stabbed with all my energy, I would draw blood.
After a while, my plans began to unravel. I realized that I would never be able to enlist Naema's boyfriend. Naema herself would block the plan. In fact, until that night she had been taunting Maisha to move out, saying that if she were as old as Maisha she would have left home long ago. Besides, even if I fled to the Kibera slums, as soon as we touched the tourists, the police would come and arrest my parents and dismantle our shack. They would take away Maisha's trunk and steal her treasures.
Baba started awake, as if a loud noise had hit him.
"Is that Maisha?" he asked, closing his eyes again.
"No, Maisha is working," Mama said. "My Maisha commands musungu and motorcars!" she said, her good mood returning.
"What? What musungu, tarling?" Baba asked, sitting up immediately, rubbing sleep and hunger from his eyes with the base of his palms.
"White tourists," Mama said.
"Uh? They must to pay ma-dollar or euros. Me am family head. You hear me, woman?"
"And no Honolulu business. What kind of motorcar were they driving?"
"Jaguar," I answered. "With driver. Baba, we should not allow Maisha to leave --- "
"Nobody is leaving, nobody. And shut up your animal mouth! You have wounded my wife! Until I break your teeth tomorrow, no opinion from you. No nothing. Did you thank the ma-men for me?"
"No," I said.
"Aiiee! Jigana, where are your manners? Did you ask where they were going? Motorcar number?"
"So if they take her to Honolulu, what do I do? Maybe we should send you to a street gang. Boy, have you not learned to grab opportunities? Is this how you will waste school fees in January? Poor Maisha."
He squinted incredulously, and lines of doubt kinked up his massive forehead. He pursed his lips, and anger quickened his breath. But that night I stood my ground.
"I don't want school anymore, Baba," I said.
"Coward, shut up. That one is a finished matter."
"What do you mean by no? You want to be a pocket thief like me,… my son? My first son? You can't be useless as the gals. Wallai!"
"Me, I don't want school."
"Your mind is too young to think. As we say, ‘The teeth that come first are not used in chewing.' As long as you live here, your Baba says school."
"You telling me never? Jigana!" He looked at Mama. "He doesn't want school? Saint Jude Thaddaeus!"
"Bwana, this boy has grown strong-head," Mama said. "See how he is looking at our eyes. Insult!"
Baba stood up suddenly, his hands shaking. I didn't cover my cheeks with my hands to protect myself from his slap or spittle, as I usually did when he was angry. I was ready for him to kill me. My family was breaking up because of me. He stood there, trembling with anger, confused.
Mama patted his shoulders to calm him down. He brushed her aside and went out to cool off. I monitored him through a hole in the wall. Soon he was cursing himself aloud for drinking too much and sleeping through Ex-mas Day and missing the chance to meet the tourists. As his mind turned to Maisha's good fortune, he began to sing "A Jaguar is a Jaguar is a Jaguar" to the night, leaping from stone to stone, tracing the loose cobbles that studded the floodwater like the heads of stalking crocodiles in a river. In the sky, some of the tall city buildings were branded by lights left on by forgetful employees, and a few shopping centers wore the glitter of Ex-mas; flashing lights ascended and descended like angels on Jacob's dream ladder. The long city buses, Baba's hunting grounds, had stopped for the night. As the streets became emptier, cars drove faster through the floods, kicking up walls of water, which collapsed on our shack.
Back inside, Baba plucked his half-used miraa stick from the rafter and started chewing. He fixed his eyes on the trunk. A mysterious smile dribbled out of the corners of his mouth. Eventually, the long stick of miraa subsided into a formless sponge. His spitting was sharp and arced across the room and out the door. Suddenly, his face brightened. "Hakuna matata!" he said. Then he dipped into the carton and came up with a roll of wire and started lashing the wheels of the trunk to the props of our shack. For a moment, it seemed he might be able to stop Maisha from going away.
Mama tried to discourage him from tying down the trunk. "Bwanaaa… stop it! She will leave if she finds you mangamangaring with her things."
"Woman, leave this business to me," he said, rebuking her. "I'm not going to sit here and let any Honolulus run away with our daughter. They must marry her properly."
"You should talk," Mama said. "Did you come to my father's house for my hand?"
"Nobody pays for trouble," Baba said. "You're trouble. If I just touch you, you get pregnant. If I even look at you --- twins, just like that. Too, too ripe."
"Me am always the problem," Mama said, her voice rising.
"All me am saying is we must to treat the tourist well."
Atieno was shivering; her hand was poking out of the shack. Baba yanked it back in and stuck her head through the biggest hole in the middle of our blanket. That was our way of ensuring that the family member who most needed warmth maintained his place in the center of the blanket. Baba grabbed Otieno's legs and pushed them through two holes on the fringe. "Children of Jaguar," he whispered into their ears. "Ex-mas ya Jag-uar." He tried to tuck Atieno and Otieno properly into the blanket, turning them this way and that, without success. Then he became impatient and rolled them toward each other like a badly wrapped meat roll, their feet in each other's face, their knees folded and tucked into each other's body --- a blanket womb.
Mama reminded him to wedge the door, but he refused. He wanted us to wait for Maisha. He winked at me as if I were the cosentry of our fortune. Mama handed Baby to me and lay down. I sat there sniffing kabire until I became drunk. My head swelled, and the roof relaxed and shook, then melted into the sky.
I was floating. My bones were inflammable. My thoughts went out like electric currents into the night, their countercurrents running into each other, and, in a flash of sparks, I was hanging on the door of the city bus, going to school. I hid my uniform in my bag so that I could ride free, like other street children. Numbers and letters of the alphabet jumped at me, scurrying across the page as if they had something to say. The flares came faster and faster, blackboards burned brighter and brighter. In the beams of sunlight leaking through the holes in the school roof, I saw the teacher writing around the cracks and patches on the blackboard like a skillful matatu driver threading his way through our pothole-ridden roads. Then I raced down our bald, lopsided field with an orange for a rugby ball, jumping the gullies and breaking tackles. I was already the oldest kid in my class.
Mama touched my shoulders and relieved me of the infant. She stripped Baby of the plastic rompers, cleaned him up, and put him in a nappy for the night. With a cushion wrested from Naema, who was sleeping, Mama padded the top of the carton into a cot. After placing Baby in it, she straightened the four corners of the carton and then folded up our mosquito net and hung it over them. It had been donated by an NGO, and Baba had not had a chance to pawn it yet. Then Mama wrapped her frame around the carton and slept.
I woke up Baba when Maisha returned, before dawn. He had been stroking his rosary beads, dozing and tilting until his head upset the mosquito netting. Mama had to continually elbow or kick him off. And each time, he opened his eyes with a practiced smile, thinking the Jaguar hour had arrived. The rain had stopped, but clouds kept the night dark. The city had gorged itself on the floods, and its skin had swelled and burst in places. The makeshift tables and stalls of street markets littered the landscape, torn and broken, as if there had been a bar fight. Garbage had spread all over the road: dried fish, stationery, trinkets, wilted green vegetables, plastic plates, wood carvings, underwear. Without the usual press of people, the ill-lit streets sounded hollow, amplifying the smallest of sounds. Long after a police car had passed, it could be heard negotiating potholes, the officers extorting their bribes --- their Ex-mas kitu kidogo --- from the people who could not afford to go to their up-country villages for the holidays.
Maisha returned in an old Renault 16 taxi. She slouched in the back while the driver got out. Kneeling and applying pliers to open the back door, the driver let her out of the car. Baba's sighs of disappointment were as loud as the muezzin who had begun to call Nairobi to prayer. My sister stepped out, then leaned on the car, exhausted. There were bags of food on the seat.
She gestured at Baba to go away. He ignored her.
"So where is our Jaguar and musungu?" Baba asked the taxi driver, peering into the shabby car as if it might be transformed at any moment.
"What Jaguar? What musungu?" the driver asked, monitoring Maisha's movements.
"The nini Jaguar. . . . Where is my daughter coming from?" Baba asked him.
"Me, I can't answer you that question," he told Baba, and pointed to his passenger.
She bent in front of the only functioning headlamp to count out the fare. Her trousers were so tight that they had crinkled on her thighs and pockets; she struggled to get to the notes without breaking her artificial nails, which curved inward like talons. Yesterday, her hair had been low cut, gold, wavy, and crisp from a fresh perm. Now it stood up in places and lay flat in others, revealing patches of her scalp, which was bruised from the chemicals. It was hard to distinguish peeling face powder from damaged skin. To rid herself of an early outbreak of adolescent pimples, she had bleached her face into an uneven lightness. Her eyelids and the skin under her eyes had reacted the worst to the assorted creams she was applying, and to night her fatigue seemed to have seeped under the burns, swelling her eyes.
The driver could not easily roll up the window. He extended his arm to guard the food bags, his collateral. Baba brought out a six-inch nail and went for the worn tires. "What dawa have you given my daughter? She always comes home strong."
The driver crumpled immediately, his pleas laden with fright. "Mzee, my name is Karume. Paul Kinyanjui wa Karume.... Me, I be an upright Kenyan. I fear God."
"And you want to steal my daughter's bags?"
"No. Please, take the bags. Please," the man begged, trying to restrain Baba from bursting his tires.
"Aiie, Baba. You shame me. Shut up," Maisha said weakly, pushing the money toward the driver.
Baba collected the bags and strolled from the road, his nose full of good smells, until he suddenly broke into a run, to untie the trunk before Maisha reached the shack.
The driver got into his car and was about to put the money into his breast pocket when he started frisking himself. Baba stood watching from the door of the shack. Soon it was as if the driver had soldier ants in his clothes. He unzipped his pockets, then zipped them again quickly, as if the thief were still lurking. He removed his coat, then his shirt, and searched them. He recounted his itinerary to the skies with eyes closed, his index finger wagging at invisible stars. He searched his socks, then he got down on all fours, scouring the wet ground. He dabbed at the sweat, or tears, running down his face. "Where is my money?" he said to Maisha, finally finding his voice. "Haki, it was in my pocket now, now."
Maisha charged forward and screeched at Baba until his stern face crumbled into a sheepish grin. He returned the fat wad of notes, giggling like the twins. The driver thanked her curtly, brushing his clothes with trembling hands. As soon as he'd reconnected the ignition wires to start the car, he creaked off, his horn blaring, his headlamp pointing up and to the left like an unblinking eye.
Maisha staggered into the shack, holding her perilously high heels over her shoulders. Mama had made room for her and the bags and had sprayed our home with insecticide to discourage mosquitoes. My siblings inside started to cough. As Maisha came in, Mama stood aside like a maid, wringing her hands. I could not look Maisha in the eye and did not know what to say.
"Good night, Maisha," I blurted out.
She stopped, her tired body seized by shock. She searched my parents' faces before tracing the voice to me.
"Who told you to talk?" she said.
"You leave full time, I run away. No school."
"You are going to school," Maisha said. "Tuition is ready."
"Run away? Jigana, shut up," Baba said. "You think you are family head now? ‘All are leaders' causes riots. Stupid, mtu dufu! Nobody is leaving."
Maisha glared at us, and we all turned our backs to her as she opened the trunk to take out a blanket. The sweet smell of her Jaguar adventures filled the shack, overpowering the heavy scent of insecticide. Though her arrivals always reminded us that life could be better, to night I hated the perfume.
"Me and your mama don't want full time, Maisha," Baba said, picking his nails. "We refuse."
"Our daughter, things will get better," Mama said. "Thanks for canceling our debt!"
"You are welcome, Mama," Maisha said.
Mama's face lit up with surprise; she was so used to being ignored. She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Finally, she sobbed the words "Asante, Maisha, asante for everything!" and bowed repeatedly, her hands held before her, as if in prayer. The women looked into each other's eyes in a way I had never seen before. They hugged and held on as if their hands were ropes that tied their two bodies together. In spite of the cold, beads of sweat broke out on Mama's forehead, and her fingers trembled as she helped Maisha undo her earrings and necklace. Mama gently laid her down.
I believed that Mama might have been able to persuade her to stay, but then Baba signaled to Mama to keep quiet so that he could be the negotiator.
"Our daughter," Baba said, "you need to rest and think carefully. As our people say, north ama south, east ama west, home the best . . ."
"Maisha, no school for me!" I said. "I told Mama and Baba. They will return fee to you."
"Jigana, please, please, don't argue," Maisha said. "Even you. You cannot even pity me this night? Just for a few hours?"
My parents sat outside, on the paint containers. I stood by the wall, away from them. I wanted to see Maisha one more time before she disappeared.
Fog brought the dew down, thickening the darkness and turning the security lights into distant halos. We could hear Maisha twist and turn on the floor, cursing the limbs of her siblings and swatting at the mosquitoes. It was as if we were keeping a vigil of her last night with us. We were restless, the silence too heavy for us. Baba mumbled, blaming himself for not going more often to sweep the church premises. He agreed with Mama that if he had swept daily, instead of every other day, Saint Joseph the Worker would have bettered our lot. Mama snapped at him, because Baba had always told her that he was not interested in Saint Joseph's favor but in a clean place for people to worship. Then Baba blamed her for no longer attending the KANU slum rallies to earn a few shillings.
The night degenerated into growls and hisses. I preferred the distraction of the quarrel to the sound of Maisha's uneasy breathing. When Maisha clapped one more time and turned over, Mama couldn't stand it anymore. She rushed inside, took the mosquito net off the carton, and tied it to the raf ters so that my sister was inside it. She sprayed the place again and brought Baby out to breast-feed. The coughing got worse. Baba tore down some of the walls to let in air, but, since the wind had subsided, it was of no use. He picked up the door and used it as a big fan to whip air into the shack.
In the morning, Atieno and Otieno came out first. They looked tired and were sniffling from the insecticide. They stood before us, spraying the morning with yellow urine, sneezing and whimpering.
The streets began to fill. The street kids were up and had scattered into the day, like chickens feeding. Some moved about groggily, already drunk on kabire. One recounted his dreams to others at the top of his voice, gesticulating maniacally. Another was kneeling and trembling with prayer, his eyes shut as if he would never open them again. One man screamed and pointed at two kids, who were holding his wallet. No one was interested. His pocket was ripped to the zipper, leaving a square hole in the front of his trousers. He pulled out his shirt to hide his nakedness, then hurried away, an awkward smile straining his face. There was no sun, only a slow ripening of the sky.
The twins started to wail and to attack Mama's breasts. Baba spanked them hard. They sat on the ground with pent-up tears they were afraid to shed. Naema broke the spell. She came out and sat with me on the containers, grabbed my hands, and tried to cheer me up. "You are too sad, Jigana," she said. "You want to marry the gal? Remember, it's your turn to take Baby out."
"Leave me alone."
"Marry me, then --- me am still here." She stuck out her tongue at me. "I'm your sister too --- more beautiful. Guy, do me photo trick . . . smile." She was well rested and had slept off her initial shock at Maisha's departure. Now she was herself again, taunting and talkative, her dimples deep and perfect. "You all must to let Maisha go."
"And you?" I said. "You only listen to Maisha."
"I'm big gal now, guy. Breadwinner. If you want school, I pay for you!"
She blew me a kiss in the wind. Maisha's creams were already lightening her ebony face.
Before I could say anything, Naema erupted with mad laughter and ran into the shack. She almost knocked Baba down as she burst out with the bags of food we had forgotten. She placed them on the ground and tore into them, filling the morning with hope, beckoning all of us on. Baba bit into a chicken wing. Mama took a leg. The rest of us dug into the sour rice, mashed potatoes, salad, hamburgers, pizza, spaghetti, and sausages. We drank dead Coke and melted ice cream all mixed up. With her teeth, Naema opened bottles of Tusker and Castle beer. At first, we feasted in silence, on our knees, looking up frequently, like squirrels, to monitor one another's intake. None of us thought to inflate the balloons or open the cards that Maisha had brought.
Then the twins fell over on their backs, laughing and vomiting. As soon as they were done, they went straight back to eating, their mouths pink and white and green from ice cream and beer. We could not get them to keep quiet. A taxi pulled up and Maisha came out of the shack, dragging her trunk behind her. Our parents paused as the driver helped her put it into the car. My mother began to cry. Baba shouted at the streets.
I sneaked inside and poured myself some fresh kabire and sniffed. I got my exercise book from the carton and ripped it into shreds. I brought my pen and pencil together and snapped them, the ink spurting into my palms like blue blood. I got out my only pair of trousers and two shirts and put them on, over my clothes.
I avoided the uniform package. Sitting where the trunk had been, I wept. It was like a newly dug grave. I sniffed hastily, tilting the bottle up and down until the kabire came close to my nostrils.
As the car pulled away with Maisha, our mourning attracted kids from the gangs. They circled the food, and I threw away the bottle and joined my family again. We struggled to stuff the food into our mouths, to stuff the bags back inside the shack, but the kids made off with the balloons and the cards.
I hid among a group of retreating kids and slipped away. I ran through traffic, scaled the road divider, and disappeared into Nairobi. My last memory of my family was of the twins burping and giggling.
Excerpted from SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM © Copyright 2011 by Uwem Akpan. Reprinted with permission by Back Bay Books. All rights reserved.